By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Maybe it's a mistake bringing my wife and son to the theater, hoping Sandy Duncan can pull off the part of Anna Leonowens in Dallas Summer Musicals' production of The King and I. Yes, Duncan is a Tony Award-winning actress, with a Broadway résumé as solid as it is varied. But Duncan has always been too perky, too pixie, too precocious to play the demure yet outspoken widowed English schoolteacher who boldly goes where few Western women have gone before: 19th-century Bangkok, Thailand (Siam). Face it, a Deborah Kerr she is not. Duncan, on the other hand, has terrific musical chops whereas Kerr had no chops at all. Her songs in the 1956 classic film adaptation of The King and I were dubbed by singer Marni Nixon.
What's more, Yul Brynner, who originated the role of the prideful, self-doubting King of Siam on Broadway in 1951 and won an Oscar for his film portrayal, is so wedded to the part in the public's imagination after performing it 4,625 times, it seems almost unjust that the role wasn't retired after his death in 1985.
My bias is further complicated by the fact that The King and I has iconic stature in musical theater. Its brilliant Rodgers and Hammerstein music and lyrics--from romantic ballads such as "Hello Young Lovers" to Broadway showstoppers such as "Shall We Dance"--aren't just a memorable mix of head and heart. They are firmly embedded in our collective cultural consciousness.
Based on a true story, its mythopoetic plot is a timeless clash of civilizations, genders and wills. Being the stuff of legend, it is not surprising that parents would want this story retold to their children, which might account for the large number of youngsters in the audience, including my 7-year-old Max.
Since its original production, this musical has been revived more times than Dick Cheney. Broadway alone has seen revivals in 1960, 1969, 1977, 1984 and 1996. The wonder and awe of musical theater is that it can take an old evergreen such as The King and I and make it new again. So faithful is this revival to the original, however, it takes something old and makes it old again. There is little that is fresh or innovative or bold about this road show, which will tour in cities across the country through 2005. Veteran director Baayork Lee, who performed in the original Broadway production at age 5, offers us a serviceable, charming replica.
As the play opens and Duncan receives her obligatory applause (she began her theatrical career at age 12 in a DSM production of The King and I), we meet Anna and her son Louis aboard the ship that is bringing them to an uncertain future. Their introductory song, "I Whistle a Happy Tune," foreshadows much of the play's psychological conflict, confidence vs. doubt, and establishes Duncan's character, revealing her as someone who is willing to humorously confront her fears and turn weakness to advantage.
Miss Anna assumes her duties of educating the king's 67 children, but she also finds herself drawn to the more difficult task of educating the king. Unlike Yul Brynner, actor Martin Vidnovic plays the King of Siam with hair. Other than that, he certainly looks the part and sings the part, perhaps better than Brynner, who tended to talk his way through the music rather than sing it. Vidnovic has a rich, mellifluous voice, and he instills "A Puzzlement" with the requisite degree of bravado and self-doubt, as he is torn between what he believes he should know as an omniscient ruler and what he realistically knows as a human being.
But Vidnovic puts on such a thick accent that some of his dialogue is practically incomprehensible. He seems to be striving for Asian authenticity, but style gets in the way of substance, and meaning gets lost in the translation.
My son just thought the king was "you know, mean."
Certainly that meanness begins to dissolve as the king introduces Anna to his many wives and children in the display of musical power and pageantry found in the "March of the Siamese Children." Charmingly staged, the children quickly endear themselves to both schoolteacher and audience alike. The chemistry between Duncan and Vidnovic begins its appropriate slow burn. Dampened by the storyline, it can never fully ignite.
A road show can seldom afford to mimic its lavish Broadway counterpart. But scene designer Kenneth Foy presents us with a smart, simple set, draping the stage in long, flowing Oriental tapestries that evoke the feel of period and place. Roger Kirk's rich, jewel-studded costuming seems appropriate for a king and his court. And Anna's hoop skirts and undergarments arouse enough humor and interest among the king's wives to make us all wonder which culture is really the civilized one.
Rumors abound that the king is a barbarian, and he fears that Siam might be overrun by the imperial aspirations of British colonialism. It doesn't help the king's image that slavery and inequality abound in Siam, even at the royal court. The king himself receives the gift of a Burmese concubine (Tuptim, played by Luz Lor), who unfortunately is in love with Lun Tha (played by Martin Sola). Both have remarkable voices, and their ballad, "We Kiss in a Shadow," brings cheers and a few sentimental sniffles from the audience. My son turns his head away from their stage kiss and offers up a disquieting, prepubescent "Yuck."
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?