Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Something Fairly Wonderful: “The King and I” at Candlelight Pavilion
The airwaves have recently been full of offerings celebrating aspects of the American musical theater. More than once, it has been pointed out that many, if not most of the musicals since the end of World War II have had a lot to do with clashing cultures, or with those outside the cultural norm. Certainly, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The King and I” falls into that category, basing a lushly told story on the edgy balance between east and west.
Now, at Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, a new production of this much-loved classic has a lot to recommend it. The songs prove cheerful and remarkably timeless. The dancing – absolutely requisite to the plot line at one point – proves up to the demands. The children are cute and the adult performers handle their very individual characters with aplomb.
Of course, the story is now imprinted on a theater-lover’s DNA: In the 1860s, a British widow becomes tutor to the children of the King of Siam, enriching both their lives and futures. The actual king (Rama IV) actually did bring in a British woman to work with him in creating an aura of western civilization strong enough for him, and the son who followed him, to fend off western imperial attempts at co-opting his country. It worked. Of course, Rama was neither as backward or as “other” as this musical makes out, but the point about westernization and the innate wisdom of a non-western king is still made.
Clynell Jackson III makes a stridingly commanding king, even managing to keep up the patter songs like “A Puzzlement” when dealing with a recorded orchestra – a singularly difficult task. His chemistry with Jenny Moon Shaw’s Mrs. Anna kind of comes and goes, but there is enough present for “Shall We Dance” and the show’s powerful ending to work.
Shaw sings well, and exudes warmth. Indeed, the only detriment to her performance appears to be costume-related, as it takes her some time to walk naturally in a hoop skirt without gripping it in a very un-1860s kind of way. Again, however, her energy and her voice carry the piece as it should.
Also worthy of significant notice is Angela Briones’ Tuptim, whose bell-like singing sets the tone of innocence for the much-abused Burmese princess. Richard Bermudez makes a muscular and commanding Lun Tha – Tuptim’s clandestine lover. Stella Kim handles one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most touchingly grown-up love songs, “Something Wonderful,” and carries an innate nobility which underscores her role as first wife.
The kids are cute and willing. The staging of their entrance has been handled well by director Neil Dale, matching children to “mothers” who can guarantee placement. Jason Luke Hill makes a very likable Prince Chulalongkorn – innocent yet assured of his standing. Likewise, Wyatt Larrabee makes attractive work of Anna’s own son. The rest of the children alternate between two casts, but the ones I saw did a fine job.
Perhaps the acid test of any “King and I” is the dance/story-telling rendition of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Simeon Den’s choreography offers just enough traditional Thai movement to make it work, and his uncredited “Eliza” does a particularly nice job.
Perhaps most importantly, the thing looks right. Neil Dale has created the difference in movement which helps define differing cultures, and keeps it consistent. Chuck Ketter’s lush-looking set allows for quick changes and Dale’s direction keeps the pace hopping. The result is colorful, tuneful, and brisk. Indeed, the only thing in the show which might benefit from a bit of a slower tempo is the very end, where everything seems to happen on top of itself a bit.
For some folk it may be difficult to get beyond Yul Brenner and what he brought to the show from its very first days, through to the film and tour after tour during his lifetime. Still, sometimes something older can only become new again when one moves past a single performance to look at the show itself. This one is worth it, from a musical and a message standpoint. Give it a try. Help support Southern California’s last dinner theater. Take the kids, too. It’s a great chance to have a nice meal, see other kids onstage, and a history lesson (well, sort of) to boot.
What: “The King and I” When: Through August 4, doors open at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: meal and show – $53-$68 adults/ $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or wwwcandelightpavilion.com