Dallas Summer Musicals, so often the host of half-baked road-weary tours of recent Broadway flops, has produced its own fairly lavish and beautifully cast revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I, now winding up its short run at Fair Park. It's a good time to get reacquainted with the 60-year-old show. There's a big new King and I opening April 16 at New York's Lincoln Center starring Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara. And there's something about the subject matter -- a despotic 19th century ruler learning modern lessons of tolerance from a spunky lady English teacher -- that feels more contemporary, and more necessary, than ever.
DSM learned its own lesson on this topic in January when it was announced that they'd cast a non-Asian actor in the role of the King of Siam. After a letter of protest from members of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, DSM's president and managing director, Michael A. Jenkins, and the show's director, Glenn Casale, recast it with Broadway and TV soap opera veteran Alan Ariano, who has played the king elsewhere.
Good move. Ariano rules the stage as a compact, muscular presence opposite Rachel York's tall, starchy Anna. These two have sizzling chemistry, well-tuned timing in their scenes together and voices superbly matched to their roles. Ariano is nothing like Yul Brynner, who originated the part on Broadway in 1951, played it in the 1956 movie and stomped and yelled on tour with it till his death in 1985 (and as one critic later wrote, "might be playing it still"). By contrast, Ariano has subtler gestures and a better singing voice, holding back until that exuberant barefoot polka with Anna on "Shall We Dance?"
York will remind you of Julie Andrews, who has never played Anna (you're thinking of Deborah Kerr). York shared a Broadway stage with Andrews years ago in Victor/Victoria, and has perfected Andrews' rounded vowels and trilling high notes. She should star in Julie Andrews: The Musical (please, somebody write that).
All of the supporting players in DSM's King and I are dandy, from Aidan Winn as Anna's 12-year-old son Louis, to Yoonjeong Seong and Devin Ilaw as desperate servant/lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and Tami Swartz as Lady Thiang, one of the king's many wives. The large ensemble of dancers make the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, choreographed by Bob Richard and narrated by Seong, the dazzling highlight it always should be.
The music in this show is some of the most glorious in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog: "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," "Whistle a Happy Tune," "I Have Dreamed" and "Shall We Dance?" Musical director Craig Barna's 15-piece pit orchestra sounds a little thin against the voices, which are often over-amplified, as they tend to be in the Music Hall. But the soaring melodies are what you'll remember.
This production, the second self-produced by DSM in the past two years, also looks spiffy across all the design elements. Nice that the multi-layered, heavily detailed scenery, designed by Michael Anania and rented by DSM, provides some income for another local theater dedicated to American musicals. It belongs to Irving's Lyric Stage, which commissioned it for their fully restored 2009 King and I and now make it available for rentals through the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.
The King and I continues through April 5 at the Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Ave. Tickets $25-$108 at 214-346-3300 or dallassummermusicals.org.