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Shall We Dance – The King and Us

During a 3-year run on Broadway,   The King and I   won 5 Tony Awards, including “Best Musical”, as well as the hearts of thousands. The fifth musical from the team of Richard Rogers II and Oscar Hammerstein was based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam. The book told of the experiences of Anna Leonowens, governess to King Mongkut of Siam in the 1860s.

From August 6-11, Sacramento will be whistling a happy tune or two while asking, “Shall we dance?” as multicultural masterpiece returns to the Sacramento Music Circus. Originally presented in the fabled canvas tent in 1959, the newest incantation filled the modern Wells Fargo Pavilion with the 13th reimagined version of a show that will create new memories.

Director Stafford Arima, who was nominated for an Olivier Award (Best Director) for his West End production of   Ragtime  , and has directed previous Music Circus productions including  Miss Saigon, Ragtime , Jesus Christ Superstar and A Little Night Music moved away from the familiar Yul Brenner casting, to have  Paul Nakau chi playing the King of Siam. Nakauchi had previously portrayed the Siamese monarch on the Broadway stage, and was recently with The King and I costar Telly Leung under Arima’s direction in the world premiere of Allegiance: A New American Musical.

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The beloved role of Anna Leonowens, the English teacher hired by the King, was delightfully portrayed by Christiane Noll, a Tony nominee and acclaimed Broadway actress known for her performances in Ragtime and Jekyll & Hyde. Telly Leung, who first performed “in the round” here at the Music Circus in Sacramento, brings his talents to the role of Lun Tha. Leung is well known for his roles in Fox television’s Glee, as well as stage roles in Broadway’s Rent and many regional roles in Wicked, M. Butterfly, Godspell, and Pacific Overtures. Diane Phelan, who starred in national tours of West Side Story, South Pacific, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and The King and I was striking as Tuptim. Tami Swartz, who demonstrated her voice talents honed in opera, theater, and jazz, portrayed the regal Lady Thiang. Alan Ariano, who starred in Broadway’s Miss Saigon and M. Butterfly played the powerful and mysterious Kralahome. Remarkable young actors Carter Thomas as Louis Leonowens, and Andrew Apy, as Prince Chulalongkorn took the roles of two boys who started as adversaries who became bonded by the story’s events.

The stage musical transcended the book and the film versions of the story. We found Anna Leonowens and her son, leaving their familiar world for a new start in a frightening new world, Siam. The King had sought to bring Western “science” and culture to his kingdom, in hopes of modernizing his traditional people. He hired Anna to tutor his many children and wives. After meeting the head wife, Lady Thiang, and the many adorable children, Anna has no choice but to accept. Though initially suspicious of each other, the King and Anna grow to respect each other, and find a relationship growing that class barriers cannot prevent. Tuptim, a young Burmese girl, is “gifted” to the King but she cannot hide her true feelings for Lun Tha, the young man who had escorted her on her long journey. Anna and Lady Thiang attempt to hide the young lovers from the eyes of the King.

In the school, the wives and children learn of the wonders of the world and are skeptical of such blasphemy as snow. But the biggest challenge to Anna is convincing them that Siam is actually a very small place on the classroom map, as the students were raised with their homeland being the center of the world. All disbelief is officially banished when the King arrives and pronounces that they are to believe everything the teacher tells them.

The relationship between Anna and the King evolves as the two strong-headed characters work together. She sees past his stubborn arrogance and finds a vulnerable sovereign who is desperate to to prepare his beloved kingdom for the inevitable collision with Western world. He realizes that her refusal to subjugate herself to him is a refreshing peak at the inevitable future. Discussions about Moses, Lincoln, and elephants in America further their bond.

When rumor comes of a planned British conquest comes, the King is determined to prove that his country is not primitive and that it’s ruler is not a savage. A visiting British diplomat gives them the perfect opportunity to unveil their new image. Western clothing, carefully scripted conversations, and a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (The Small House of Uncle Thomas) as a ballet and play help convince the diplomat. The King also learns the beauty of dance, as Anna’s polka lesson becomes a defining moment in their relationship.

In the meantime, Tuptim tries to escape the palace with Lun Tha, only to have Lun Tha killed and Tuptim captured by the King’s guards. Anna challenges the King by throwing herself between Tuptim and the King’s attempt to have his subject whipped.  The King finds himself unable to follow through with his punishment, breaking him.

Anna and her son prepare to leave Siam and are summoned to the Palace for a last audience with the King.  They find him in bed, dying and she reconciles their feelings for each other.  At the end, the King passes, and his son, the Crown Prince regally assumes the throne.  His commanding actions and voice are those of a monarch, but the budding young king respectfully echoes his father.

The current show used the Wells Fargo Pavilion’s circular stage for a very lively and well-received evening of music and memories. Cool, wispy stage fog waffled in the upper rafters throughout the performance and added to the dreamlike atmosphere, as well as hiding the stage elements awaiting to be lowered. Though one would initially thing the small center stage would be limiting, the creative use of multiple set elements and the extension of the play up the aisles, expanded the creative landscape. Scenic designer Stephen Gifford drew awes from the audience as a boat, a garden a courtyard, and several rooms of the King’s palace materialized from set pieces in the darkness. Gifford, in tandem with Lighting Designer Martin E. Vreeland, created a multifaceted set that flipped the pages of the story’s book magically.

Choreographer Bob Richard dazzled the opening night crowd with the hypnotic movements of the King’s subjects through the many dance numbers. The dancing, prancing, and stylized ballet movements during the Small House of Uncle Thomas (a play within the play) brought both laughter and delight. King and Anna swept the palace floor for the “Shall We Dance” number, spinning and twirling majestically around the raised circular stage was a visual showstopper. The number drew thunderous applause.

Music Director Craig Barna, who has worked for the Music Circus for 27 years, led the orchestra as the familiar music filled the Pavilion. The vocals were also strong and perfectly match to the characters. Anna’s “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Hello Young Lovers” were definitely Broadway quality. But it was the well-loved “Getting to Know You” that most delighted many in the audience, especially when accompanied by the talented and charming young children of the Court. The star-crossed lovers, Lun Tha and Tuptim drew awed silence from the audience with “We Kiss in Shadow”, and they brought tears to many an eye with their duet of “I have Dreamed”.

It is notable that this Music Circus production differed from the Yul Brenner and even Rex Harrison productions by giving the audience Asian actors for the King and all the members of the Royal Court. The previous film and many stage productions used all non-Asian with makeup. Some amazingly gifted Asian talent took the stage, many of them local to the Sacramento area. It brought authenticity to every voice and face in the cast.

This most recent The King and I is less of a revival and more of a reimagination. All the elements that have been loved over the years remain. The pageantry, music, and well-loved elements of the story have not changed. But the casting and talents of those on stage make this a truly fresh interpretation. The audiences will leave whistling and singing the familiar songs, as well as chattering about the many moments that affected them. But hopefully, the audience will also see the message of the story. They’ll come to see how people greatly different from one another can find common ground and acceptance. And how the best way to overcome fear and prejudice is “getting to know you.”

The Wells Fargo Museum, home to Sacramento’s Music Circus
Music Circus is produced under the leadership of California Musical Theatre Artistic Director Glenn Casale and Executive Producer Scott Klier. California Musical Theatre President and CEO is Richard Lewis.

What: Roger and Hammerstein’s musical, The King and I

Where: The Music Circus, 1419 H Street, Sacramento, CA

When: August 6-11, 2013 Evening performances are Tuesday, August 6, Wednesday, August 7 and Sunday, August 11 at 7:30 p.m., and Thursday, August 8, Friday, August 9 and Saturday, August 10 at 8:00 p.m. Matinee performances are Thursday, August 8, Saturday, August 10 and Sunday August 11 at 2:00 p.m.

Who: Directed by Stafford Arima, starring Christine Noll (Anna), Paul Nakauchi (King of Siam), Alan Arano (Kralahome), Telly Leung (Lun Tha), Diane Phelan (Tuptim), Tami Swartz (Lady Thiang), Luis Avila (Simon), Ron Wisniski (Captain Orton), Rumi Oyama (George), Michiko Takemasa (Eliza), Michael Stevenson (Sir Edward Ramsay), Carter Thomas (Louis Leonowens), Andrew Apy (Chulaongkorn)

Tickets: Available by phone at (916) 557-1999, online at www.tickets.com, or in person at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Box Office, 1419 H. Street.

More information: www.SacramentoMusicCircus.com

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