By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
This forbidden love affair provides the subplot that will ultimately incite the climax of the main story. How can the king eschew barbarism at the same time he enslaves his own people? How can he suffer this insult to his royal vanity without denying this couple the free will to love?
It falls upon Anna to help the king negotiate these puzzlements after she is persuaded by the riveting operatic stylings of the king's chief wife, Lady Thiang (Catherine Mieun Choi). Choi really belts it out for her man in "Something Wonderful." Anna helps the king prepare for a British envoy, who is on a fact-finding mission to determine what kind of ruler the king really is.
Cleverly, Anna educates the king in how to win the West, using just the right amount of flattery and chicanery without threatening his ego. To show the extent of his country's Westernized civility, the king lets Tuptim present a controversial play she has written, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, a Siamese treatment of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. In this play within a play, all of the musical's dramatic elements seem to creatively coalesce.
Although neither major character has a role in Tuptim's play, it doesn't matter. Their presence is magnified in the afterglow of the scene, which has East not only meeting West but doing the polka with it. In the spirited "Shall We Dance," all pretense melts away as the king and Anna are drawn to each other in a dance of daring and charm that abruptly ends when it's revealed that Tuptim and her lover have attempted to flee Siam. Whether it's the chemistry of Duncan and Vidnovic or the artistry of Rodgers and Hammerstein or both, the audience is theirs for the taking, pushed and pulled between the high of romance and the low of reality.
As tragedy completes the musical and the opening-night audience rises in a traditional DSM standing "O," I turn to my son to gauge his reaction. But after two hours and 40 minutes including intermission, Max is sound asleep.
It falls upon me to measure Sandy Duncan's performance, which I ultimately enjoyed. Perhaps it's her age (Duncan, 58, is playing a woman who in real life was in her late 20s), but Duncan manages to tamp down her innate tendency toward the perky by playing Anna with a refined spunkiness. And after all, if Marie Osmond could be cast in the role of Anna in the last Broadway revival of The King and I, what right did I have to rag on Sandy Duncan?