Half way through the first act of Theater of the Stars’ The King and I, I unconsciously found myself swept up in the production’s grandeur and smiling from ear to ear. With Broadway talent bursting at the seams, this classic show, written by musical theater royalty Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), is easily one of Theater of the Stars’ best productions in recent memory. Directed by original King and I cast member and Broadway actress and choreographer Baayork Lee, there is a clear fondness for this somewhat dated show, however, that does not prevent the production from exploring the deeper messages found in this groundbreaking work.
When English school teacher Anna Leonowens is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, in an effort to bring his nation into the modern world, neither can imagine the impact that they will have on one another. During the show, the King and his court are forced to confront the issues of subjugation and sexism that are slowly fading from the Western world.
The spectacular cast is led by Emmy-nominated stage and screen veteran, and Georgia native, Victoria Mallory (A Little Night Music, Follies, Young and the Restless). Known for originating roles in two Stephen Sondheim shows, the regular Theater of the Stars performer brings a necessary grace to the role of Anna. With equal parts kindness and fire, Mallory’s Anna provides the proceedings with a gravitas that is incumbent upon a member of the ever increasing British Empire. Additionally, Mallory’s majestic voice is perfectly suited for some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most timeless melodies, including “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “Getting to Know You”, and “Shall We Dance”.
Having played the role on Broadway, on tour, and in the West End, Ronobir Lahiri brings a seemingly effortless charm to the King of Siam, especially in his lighter moments. With a strong baritone voice and an innate sense of humor, it is easy to understand why Anna and all of the King’s wives see him as “a man you’ll forgive and forgive, and help protect, as long as you live.” Perhaps not as commanding as the iconic Yul Brenner, in the crucial moments when we see the King wrestle with his conflicting Siamese traditions and a desire to modernize his country, Lahiri provides the emotional honesty that allows his struggle to hit home.
Easily the highlight of the evening was the classic “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” scene, choreographed by Susan Kikuchi. Narrated by the beautiful and wonderfully talented Ali Ewoldt (Tuptim), this Siamese interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is both magical and elegant, and provides an American context to the Siamese social issues, which are central to the show’s plot. Ewoldt, who originated the role of Cosette in the Broadway revival of Les Miserables, was last seen on the Fox stage in 2011 as Maria in the National tour of West Side Story. With soaring vocals and an impressively commanding performance, Ewoldt brings a fire to the role of a royal wife in love with another man.
The production also features a strong supporting cast consisting of Jee Hyun Lim as Lady Thiang, Joshua Dela Cruz as Lun Tha, Raul Aranas as Kralahome, and Ralph Aranas as Prince Chulalongkorn.
The King and I debuted on Broadway in 1951 and, like many Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, is a little heavy-handed when dealing with themes of racism and oppression. However, despite a handful of opening night technical issues, a few ill-fitting wigs on naturally blonde children, and a set of bizarrely oversized books, this production, which features dazzling costumes and sets, is a can’t miss for a family looking to enjoy a night of classic musical theater.
Theater of the Stars presents The King and I through Tuesday, September 11, 2012, including Saturday and Sunday matinees. For more information visit their website. Tickets are available at the Fox Theatre box office, by phone at 1-855-ATLTIXX, or online at www.foxatltix.com.