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Toby's 'The King and I' is a musical treat

Looking to shake those winter blahs? One sure way is to "whistle a happy tune."

That's the prescription, anyway, once provided by Oscar Hammerstein II and being filled again now by "The King and I" at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

Whatever your concerns going in, you're guaranteed to go out singing, humming or whistling some of Broadway's most indelible melodies.

This is the third rendition of the "King and I" by the Columbia dinner theater and, if not the best, the third time is definitely a charmer. It's up to the standards of the previous shows, and is more than capable of delivering all the strengths of the original play.

So many popular standards come from this score by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein — from lighthearted tunes like "Getting to Know You" and "I Whistle a Happy Tune" to full-blown romantic ballads like "Hello, Young Lovers" and "We Kiss in the Shadow."

For more than six decades, "The King and I" has delighted folks the world over with its charming score and exotic story of a Welsh governess brought into the court of Siam to tutor the king's offspring and their various mothers.

The musical was actually based on the experiences of the real-life Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of Siam's King Monkut in the 1860s. Her story was told in Margaret Landon's 1944 novel, which itself was made into a movie in 1946.

The poignant East-meets-West tale is still fresh, funny and surprisingly moving, as staged in Columbia by Shawn Kettering. And while most other area dinner theaters rely on taped musical accompaniment, Toby's Dinner Theatre still offers the best live pit band in Maryland.

Conductor Ross Scott Rawlings leads the musical sextet that complements the singers. On one recent night, an insistent drum beat kept the king and Anna dancing round and round in an unacknowledged courtship ritual that one suspects Hammerstein intended when he adapted the novel.

Rawlings' musicians really bring the songs to life, pushing the various leads into delivering soaring vocal performances.

While you couldn't exactly call their relationship romantic, Heather Marie Beck as Anna Leonowens gains early advantage over sparring partner David Bosley-Reynolds in the coveted role of the king. Audience members could sense the sexual tension, perhaps stemming from old wounds or private fears, as the king is forced to deliver on a promise of a house for Anna, even as he insists that she reside in his palace. If there's a moral, it's the need to respect the differences between people and their cultures.

Beck soars as Miss Anna. With her hands holding her huge hooped skirt and a smile to brighten the night, Beck whirls onto Toby's central stage like a tornado about to touch down. And from her first notes to that famous dancing finale, Beck never falters nor loses her sparkle.

Bosley-Reynolds brings a depth and slyness to the king, who wants to move his country into the modern era but is stymied by long-held cultural values and beliefs. Bosley-Reynolds softens the edges of the staid monarch with flashes of genuine warmth. His tenderness with the children — picking up the tiniest princess who bows the wrong way and gently putting her down right — and his effective delivery of the solo "A Puzzlement" had the audience squarely in his corner.

Toby's theater-in-the-round has long been a haven for upcoming artists, and this show brought to our attention young Palmer Foran as Prince Chulalongkorn, the king's feisty son.

Soprano Julia Lancione, whose gorgeous voice easily reaches above high C, and triple-threat talent Jeffrey Shankle play Tuptim and Lun Tha, respectively, the star-crossed lovers who may bring tears to your eyes as they steal away to "kiss in the moonlight."

Sensing the couple may be forced apart forever, Crystal Freeman, as Lady Thiang, delivers the haunting "Something Wonderful" with a feeling and control that is indeed wonderful to hear.

Kudos, too, to choreographer Tina DeSimone for arranging dances that capture the youth and vitality of this youthful cast. The youngsters in the ensemble, many of them double-cast in rather demanding roles, are a sentimental plus.

The entire cast performs in the Act II ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." Some are dancers, others serve as props bathed in an otherworldly green lighting. Standouts include Tegan Williams (Eliza) and her Angel, Erisu Jo, a gifted Japanese-born dancer.

Veteran dancer/choreographer Charlie Abel commands the spotlight with some bravura moves as the evil Simon of Lagree, and keeps the show moving ably along at other points in a variety of character roles.

Finally, let's not forget costume designer Florence Arnold, whose Asian-inspired costumes, masks and, especially, lovely swirling pink ballgown for Anna's famous dance with the king do their part in making this show as much a delight to the eye as to the ear.

If you've never been to Toby's Dinner Theatre or have been waiting for the right show to treat your family, this could have you all whistling along to the time-honored joys of live theater.

"The King and I" continues at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia through March 25. Tickets for both evening and matinee performances range from $34.50 to $53, and include parking, a wide-ranging dinner buffet and dessert. Reservations are required. Group rates, season subscriptions and gift certificates are available. For information, call 410-730-8311, or go to

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