The most daring thing about Christopher Renshaw’s touring production of The King and I is the almost-blackface mask worn by a dancer in the “Small House of Uncle Tom” ballet. And I’m not sure that’s a compliment.
This is, I’ll admit, something of an eye-popping spectacle. Fifty-odd performers, pounds of gold leaf, bolt after bolt of rich Thai silks in burgundies and blues and purples, a gaggle of saffron-clad monks bearing incenseeverything but elephants, and you half expect them to come trooping out, too. It’s Rodgers and Hammerstein in the age of Lloyd Webber, though it’s clearly designed for the road: The opulent effect is achieved mostly with layers of one-dimensional set elements, easily packed away when the run is done.
Such a lavish production of this enduring musical chestnut begs for similarly plush voices, though, and that’s where this production, in residence for the time being at the Kennedy Center, falls down. The still-running Broadway version, pretty much identical in its sets and costumes, bowed with the formidable Donna Murphy (who took home a Tony) in the central role, and now stars Broadway stalwart Faith Prince, casting that sounds as if it would be a puzzlement but is by all reports working remarkably well. The touring show has Hayley Mills, who cuts an elegant figure in Roger Kirk’s sumptuous gowns but whose voice has neither Prince’s brass nor Murphy’s expressiveness. Mills’ singing, in fact, is barely theredespite amplification that seems aggressive even by current musical-theater standards.
Anyone who’s seen The King and I will understand why this is a serious problem. The show is blessed with some of the most memorable tunes ever written for the American stage: “Shall We Dance?,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “I Have Dreamed,” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, and a wonder of a ballet, choreographed by Jerome Robbins, that still holds up marvelously. But its plot, derived from the novel Anna and the King of Siam, is a veritable plodder.
There’s a bit of a morality tale built in, but it’s a strained one. Cultural imperialism, in the form of widowed English governess Anna Leonowens, comes face to face with the mysterious East, embodied by the king, his harem, and his 67 children (“I start very late,” he tells Anna). He’s looking to modernize his country so as to fend off the encroaching British colonialists, but he’s stubborn about maintaining his prerogatives; she’s looking for adventure, but nothing she can’t negotiate in a hoop skirt.
King hires widow to teach his wives and children, and widow immediately begins feeding them subversive Western ideas, which inevitably leads to trouble: A slave, Tuptim, stages a theatrical performance based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin for visiting British diplomats and tries to escape the country with her lover during the festivities. It ends badly, of course, and widow denounces king as a barbarian. In a huff, she announces her intentions to leave the country on the next boat, no matter where it’s headed. Inexplicably, widow is still hanging around months later, when king, his spirit broken by the conflict between tradition and new ideas, gets back at her by dying.
Strangely enough, all this smug, superior hooey can be moving if the performances are committed enough. Vee Talmadge, who’ll be familiar to some Washingtonians from Ford’s Theater’s Gate of Heaven, tends to bluster as the king, though in fairness the role demands a bit of bravado. In any case, he’s not nearly as big a blowhard as Ernest Abuba, playing the Kralahome (prime minister) as one big shout. Worse still is Timothy Ford Murphy, who (despite what you may have read elsewhere) doesn’t so much sing his love duets with Tuptim as bellow them. Ugh.
The two notable voices are women’s: Naomi Itami’s operatic training gives her authority as Lady Thiang, the king’s first wife, and her musical phrasing is impressively sensitive. As Tuptim, Luzviminda Lor wields a light, silvery instrument that’s remarkable for its freshness and ease, though her singing is perhaps slightly mannered.
Alas, Mills’ voice is a wan, almost thready, soprano that loses focus and warmth above the middle range, so “Hello, Young Lovers” has little of the grace it needs and “Getting to Know You” has only half the bounce it should. She does have a kind of striking poise onstage; she’s beautiful, dignified, even charming at times, and there’s no question she looks good in a snood, butand I say this with some regretthere is absolutely no depth to her characterization.
Indeed, much of this show seems to have the kind of perfunctory air you’d expect at the end of a long tour (and here it is only at the beginning): Dialogue seems canned, not conversational; entrances and exits seem less natural than necessary. Renshaw might have spent less time planning the little directorial flourishes that admittedly add life to the big scenes, and more time drawing real performances out of his lead actors.CP