The combination of McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts has again proven to bear the most sumptuous musical fruit — this time in The King and I, a delightful production that underscores the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the sweetness of a bygone era. Over the course of a brisk two hours and forty-five minutes, and through only May 14th, audiences will learn or be reminded of why the Golden Age of musicals, from 1943 to 1959, was as transcendent and transformative as it was. Even more impressive is that this King and I features La Mirada Theatre’s potentially largest cast ever, a whopping 44 performers, who have succeeded in pulling off a miraculously beautiful undertaking over a mere 12 days of rehearsal.
The enthralling and based-on-true-events premise brings the disparate philosophies of the West and East together, making for a compelling tension and highlighting themes related to humility and understanding, cultural and conjugal norms, the concept of right and wrong, and progress.
Anna Leonowens of Wales, an English schoolteacher, who arrives to Bangkok, Siam (Thailand) in 1862 by boat with her son Louis, symbolizes the West. Her presence has been requested by the King of Siam who hopes that, for the sake of his kingdom (representing the East), Anna can teach his multitude of children, and the wives favored by him, the best of Western values. However, Anna immediately finds herself at odds with this agreement and the King who reneges on a promise to house her in quarters separate from the palace. And although Anna quickly finds her teaching to be fulfilling, she finds further reasons to disagree with the King as she becomes immersed in the goings-on inside the palace and becomes acquainted with the King’s stern right-hand man, the Kralahome, the King’s head wife Lady Thiang and her heir-to-the-throne son Prince Chulalongkorn, an emissary from Burma named Lun Tha, and Burma’s Princess Tuptim who has been sent to the King as a gift. Still, the King of Siam isn’t all bad, and certainly not a barbarian deserving of having his nation commandeered by the British government — an unnerving probability which urges conciliation.
Anastasia Barzee impeccably realizes the spirit of the crinoline-adorned Anna from the very first scene when Michael Rothhaar’s likable Captain Orton docks his boat. There is an audaciousness to the headstrong Anna who won’t back down on what she perceives to be morally right (e.g., her housing situation), which is immediately answered with a dismissive matter-of-factness by Alan Ariano’s stellar Kralahome whose authoritative stubbornness cogently hints at the conflict that will soon envelop Anna.
Barzee is terrific at getting across a growing dilemma which dawns on her character as she asks Joan Almedilla’s Lady Thiang why she (Anna) is being addressed as “sir,” which uncovers the sadly accepted notion that the women of Siam are not equal to their male counterparts. Almedilla, just as she was when portraying the same part during the musical’s national tour in the mid-2010s, gives Thiang an admirable strength, sensitivity to the human condition, and a knowingness about how to navigate politics and her husband’s ego. Anna and Lady Thiang’s courage, manifested in distinct ways, counterbalances their sons’ lack of confidence: Oliver Stewart’s well-realized Louis is trepidatious about his new surroundings and Luke Naphat’s nuanced Chulalongkorn doubts his abilities as a future king.
But unlike Louis and Chulalongkorn, Tuptim (Paulina Yeung) and Lun Tha (Ethan Le Phong) actually have their lives at stake if word gets out about their secret romance and getaway plans. Yeung is marvelously convincing as an oppressed woman who discovers her own agency as one not to be treated as a slave but one in charge of her own future and desire to artistically pay homage to activist female author Harriet Beecher Stowe and her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Le Phong, too, is credible in selling the risk at hand for meeting away from prying eyes with his character’s beloved. Their duets — “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” — emphasize a forbidden love, Yeung’s staggeringly lovely vibrato, and Le Phong’s wonderful and wistful timbre.
As a dubiousness creeps into the palace, the bravery to overcome it is led by Barzee’s resourceful Anna whose main opponent is Paul Nakauchi’s King of Siam despite sporadic shows of support for what she is teaching. Nonetheless, as opposed to his public demonstrations to the contrary, the King admits in private to not knowing what he does not know, a true “Puzzlement,” which Nakauchi, a consummate veteran well-versed with this Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork, superbly emotes across a spectrum of emotions.
Like his leading co-star, Nakauchi deserves much praise for the energy, drama, comedy, humanity, etc., etc., etc. he brings to the stage. Together, as collaborative partners and as a diametric contrast — Barzee with her liltingly prepossessing voice attributed to Anna and Nakauchi with his character’s obdurate clinging to possibly outdated customs — is where the two shine brightest. When a compromise is reached insofar that Anna must ensure her head is always lower than the King’s, in lieu of servilely bowing, Barzee and Nakauchi earn hearty laughs when the latter’s persona teases the former by getting lower and lower to the ground. Then, notwithstanding the appearance of Anna’s former love in Sir Edward Ramsey, depicted with a flawless British sensibility by Kevin Symons, the push between Anna and the King subsides, inviting more of a pull, as the pride softens in both. With an anticipation rising, the audience reacts with a rousing ovation when “Shall We Dance?” is finally sung and physically exemplified in Act II.
Director Glenn Casale helms this remarkable achievement, not only by bringing the best out of his principals, many of whom reprise roles played in prior productions, but has brilliantly coached the myriad of comparatively neophyte child performers onstage, who have been perspicaciously cast by Julia Flores, to appear way beyond their years. Also, this is particularly where Dennis Castellano’s expert musical direction (and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design) is felt the most — in numbers like the famous “Getting to Know You” where the younger cast keeps up astonishingly well with the experienced adults.
Likewise, Choreographer Rumi Oyama deserves a tip of the hat for ensuring that the fluidity in Jerome Robbins’ sequences remains uninterrupted as the performers move elegantly in front of regal curtains and from one golden column to the next (original set design by Michael Yeargan remains intact), oftentimes wearing lavishly iridescent robes, headdresses, and ceremonial garb (original costume design is by Catherine Zuber).
That said, where Oyama, Lighting Designer Steven Young, and Hair, Wig, and Makeup Designers Kaitlin Yagen and Madison Medrano really earn their keep is during the 15-minute “Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet.” As Stowe’s narrative meets Tuptim’s biographical allegory, Michiko Takemasa’s Eliza (delineating Tuptim’s predicament), Cristyn Dang’s Simon of Legree (a parallel to the controlling King of Siam), Chad Takeda’s Uncle Thomas, Arielle Dettmer’s Angel George, Callula Sawyer’s Topsy, and Angel Strittmater’s Little Eva, among others, winningly capture the audience’s attention with evocative body language and effortless grace throughout the ballet’s many sections.
Overall, this fabulous production of The King and I lends more weight to the argument that La Mirada Theatre, which boasts original casts, is truly at the apex of theatre houses in Southern California. The multifarious elements, including the tall order of casting 44 performers who also complement each other, might have been daunting elsewhere but not here. The behind-the-scenes personnel and performers hit their mark by delivering a highly enjoyable show and elaborating on the messages weaved into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s story, perhaps none more identifiable than the idea of trying to do one’s best in the face of uncertainty. Nobody is immune to this sentiment, not even a king.
For more information on La Mirada Theatre’s production of The King and I, and to purchase tickets, please visit lamiradatheatre.com. La Mirada Theatre is located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd, La Mirada, CA 90638.