Atlanta-based company Theater of the Stars transformed the fabulous Fox Theatre into a dazzling visage of 19th century Siam (modern day Thailand), replete with towering golden Buddhas, intricate tapestries and a starry sky festooned with twinkling stars for the fall production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.
In fact, Sunday, Sept. 9 marked the homestretch of Theater of the Stars’ short-lived run of The King and I, which will conclude Tuesday, Sept. 11.
Before the show began, executive producer Chris Manos strode onto the stage to welcome a packed house. Manos waxed nostalgic about his history with both Theater of the Stars and the Fox Theatre.
“It seemed like only yesterday we started in Chastain Park,” he said.
Manos proceeded to thank his dutiful supporters for keeping his theater company in business over the past few years, as the faltering economy sapped ticket sales.
“Once we get your name and address, you’ll never not hear from us,” Manos said. “We’ll track you down – whether you’re on your riverboat, at your lake house or climbing the Rocky Mountains.”
When the genial Manos finished the formalities, and the lights finally dimmed, the orchestra came alive. As they pounded gongs, clashed symbols then eased into a harmony with violins and flutes, the audience members settled in for a field trip to the Orient.
The curtains opened onto a sparse stage. A muted backdrop of blues and grays resembled the deck of a ship, and a simple brown cargo chest functioned as the scene’s only prop.
When Anna Leonowens (played by renowned theater actress Victoria Mallory) and her son Louis (Carl Kimbrough) joined the ship captain (John Antony) on deck, their youthful energy permeated the theater. “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” the first song of the night, showcased Mallory’s deep vibrato, impeccable vocal control and expressive face. Young Kimbrough’s voice was just as impressive as he shocked theatergoers with his velvety falsetto.
The overarching theme of The King and I was established in the next scene, as Mallory’s Anna first meets members of the King of Siam’s courtly entourage. Instantly, the transgression of gender roles and the clash of East and West are established as prominent themes.
Though the musical juggles complex ideas and contentious material, Rodgers and Hammerstein address women’s roles (i.e. the traditional subversion of women) with biting wit and sarcasm, devices that both put the audience at ease and elicit laughter from men and women alike.
Mallory’s confidence on stage yielded a commanding performance, rivaled only by her principal counterpart, the King of Siam (Ronobir Lahiri).
Lahiri often strutted across stage with his hands on his hips, glancing sideways at the audience after he’d dropped a sexist quip about Anna or his many wives and concubines. His comedic timing was spot-on, and he consistently delivered his zingers with a straight face. For example, he admitted, “slavery very bad thing,” then clapped his hands so his minions would drop to his feet in a bow.
Ali Ewoldt (Princess Tuptim) and Josh Dela Cruz (Lun Tha) each delivered solid performances, though this production of The King and I only briefly touched upon their forbidden romance. As a result, the audience failed to connect with the fresh-faced duo unless they were singing.
In Ewoldt’s rendition of “My Lord and Master,” the lovely songstress crooned like a whippoorwill, and when she hit the high notes, arm hairs stood up. One audience member shouted, “Sing it girl!”
The success of Theater of the Star’s production depended upon the combination of several factors: amazing costumes, the subtle-though-palpable chemistry between Mallory and Lahiri, an epic dance number and the entire casts’ mastery of broken English (an incredible feat that could have been cheesy if overdone).
The awe-inspiring production mesmerized the audience for more than two hours with humor and substance, that is, until the very end.
Spoiler alert: when the most emotionally gripping moment of the musical arrived (when the king dies from heart failure), Lahiri kept up his jovial banter until action on the other side of the stage distracted the audience. When our eyes ventured back to the king, he was dead. And then it was over.
Everyone in the crowd looked at one another, confused.
Despite the anticlimactic ending, The King and I artfully wove controversial ideas, interactive banter and compelling performances into a brilliant portrayal of romance in a faraway land.
– By Stephanie Minor