Review: New Production of THE KING AND I is Simply Glorious at the La Mirada Theatre

“Something wonderful” is happening in the city of La Mirada, and it's their brand new, spectacular production of this tuneful Rodgers and Hammerstein classic

By: Apr. 28, 2023
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If you missed seeing the gorgeously lavish Bartlett Sher-directed 2015 Lincoln Center revival of the 1951 Tony Award-winning classic THE KING AND I, either on Broadway or during one of its national tour stops in Southern California a few years later---or, perhaps, you just want to revisit the show again---fret not, because, right now, a glorious new production that is somewhat reminiscent of that superb, much lauded revival is currently on stage at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through May 14, 2023.

Presented by McCoy Rigby Entertainment at their home base in the city of La Mirada, this beautiful, mesmerizing, Broadway-caliber production of the beloved musical theater classic---here helmed by director Glenn Casale---has all the ingredients of a great revival done right, from its dazzling visual and technical components to the vibrant musical magic created by both its rousing orchestra and the talented artists that make up its ovation-worthy ensemble cast.

And, yes, despite more concerted efforts to promote forward-thinking advances in the casting of shows in recent years, THE KING AND I is, as always, a very not-so-subtle reminder of just how little Asian representation there still is in the world of mainstream theatre, and that, at times, an old-school staple like this remains, for decades, the only way to see a cast predominantly made up of faces that look like mine. More often than not, these shows are championed for its representation, even if part of the sacrifice to experience and celebrate such shows is to lean into hints of stereotypes or to accept a Western author's skewed point-of-view of a foreign country and its citizens.

Granted, some of those aspects have been diluted a palpable amount in subsequent updates of the THE KING AND I, and so, for me, the show as it stands now---and here in this excellent production---has settled into a comfortable and endearing junction point to express this story of two worlds coming together.

Remarkably progressive for its time, THE KING AND I---set in 1860's Siam---tells the fact-based story of the fascinating relationship that develops between widowed British school teacher Anna Leonowens (the resplendent Anastasia Barzee) and her stern but smart employer, the King of Siam (the incredible Paul Nakauchi). What first begins as as a contentious, often combative clash of ideologies, the pair's interactions eventually blossoms into a deep, true friendship filled with genuine admiration and mutual respect. And though romance is never truly spoken about outright, hints of its possibilities linger in the tense-filled air.

At the top of the show, Anna has just arrived at the docks of Bangkok with her young son Louis (Oliver Stewart) in tow, and is understandably nervous and trepidatious about their new adventure in this exotic, Far East locale.

We quickly learn that she has been hired (well, actually, summoned) by the King of Siam himself to be his royal children's in-palace private school instructor, teaching them---and the rest of the palace wives and staff by proximity---in newer, more modern "scientific" Western principles, in the hopes that the lessons bestowed upon the royal household would help his overall goal of leading Siam away from traditional, ancient thinking, and ushering in more forward and progressive ideas. Doing so, the King thinks, could mean his nation may finally gain equal footing on the world stage, rather than be viewed as just another third-world nation that's waiting for colonization.

Naturally, the clash of cultures provides mutual difficulty for both Anna and the King, as the King struggles to exert his dictatorial, absolute authoritarian rule---as allowed by his country's own "old world" standards---while getting pushback from the more modern-skewing Anna, who (rightly so) wants to be seen and treated like an equal, not just another bowing servant like the rest of the King's royal staff.

Neither Anna or the King are willing to back down in a debate---which often results into some fiery arguments, much to the enjoyment of the audience, of course.

Their relationship is so contentious that Anna almost leaves her post upon learning that the King has no plans in complying with her contract stipulation for a promised house---separated from the King's residence. The King, of course, doesn't understand why anyone would not want to live inside the opulent walls of his royal palace.

But as stubborn as the King is, he does possess a genuine willingness to improve, to grow, and to adapt to a world moving towards modernization and empirically-proven principles---a trait admired genuinely by Anna.

Funny enough, the King is surprisingly receptive to expanding his knowledge, sneaking in some lesson-learning on his own, hoping his willingness to entertain Western ideas would brand him a forward-thinking King in Anna's (and the World's) eyes. But such ideas also further exacerbate the King's great skepticism and, well, "puzzlement."

Deep down, the King is an educated, highly intelligent man in his own right. He is also looking very much ahead towards the future, making sure that his son and direct heir, Prince Chulalongkorn (Luke Naphat) is physically and mentally prepared to take over the throne, hopefully properly equipped to handle this new world and to be knowledgeable of it---should the time comes.

However, more than anything, the King's biggest personal hurdle to overcome is for Siam---and himself as its leader---not to be looked upon by Western nations and his other adversaries as weak, behind-the-times, and, worse, "barbaric"---a label he is particularly sensitive to and that he is desperate to disprove, even if it means willingly toning down centuries of his royal upbringing.

Along her journey, Anna finds an ally in the King's head wife---and Prince Chulalongkorn's mom---Lady Thiang (the superb Joan Almedilla, reprising the role she played brilliantly in the first national tour), who often drops truth bombs to Anna on what the King actually needs that he may be too stubborn to ask for himself.

Anna also takes young Tuptim (the gorgeous voiced Paulina Yeung)---a "gift" from the King of Burma---under her wing. Brought to Siam against her will, the often melancholy Tuptim finds solace in reading Anna's books, while also secretly having clandestine romantic meetings in the shadows with her lover Lun Tha (the excellent Ethan Le Phong), the young man who was originally tasked to drop her off at the palace.

And, of course, Anna just loves teaching the King's many(!) small children---and are, perhaps, the main reasons why she has decided to stay and continue her work in Siam (who could resist those cute little munchkins?).

As the planned visit of several diplomats loom on the horizon, will the King succeed in convincing the world Siam is a strong, self-sufficient independent nation looking towards the future? Or will the King say something wrong that will plunge him into more troubles?

A spectacular production from top to bottom, La Mirada's THE KING AND I is a total feast for the musical theater senses. From its use of sets derived from Michael Yeargan's original scenic designs (paired with Steven Young's lighting design) and the resplendent costumes inspired by Catherine Zuber's original designs, the entire production drips with dazzling royal opulence. Sound-wise, the show's assembled orchestra sounds appropriately full and lush, providing sweeping reproductions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's memorable score, here under the baton of musical director Dennis Castellano and mixed together by Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers.

By the time the show reaches its stunning Act 2 opener that shows Tuptim's inspired theatrical take on Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery tome Uncle Tom Cabin, the production can't help but hypnotize.

And, of course, this production's ensemble cast is just top-notch. I enjoy the interplay shared by Barzee and Nakauchi, though each actor does a great job with their individual solo moments as well. Barzee in particular is just an exquisite Mrs. Leonowens, blessed with a glorious soprano to go with her touching acting choices that quickly endear her to the audience. Nakauchi earns plenty of laughs during his xcomedic moments Almedilla continues to be a stirring Lady Thiang, acting brilliantly even when just in the background observing or reacting to other characters. I enjoyed the chemistry between Phong and Yeung as the secret lovers. Their tear-inducing duets in "We Kiss In A Shadow," and "I Have Dreamed" are just lovely and tugs at the heartstrings. I even found the friendly patter shared between Stewart's Louis and Naphat's Prince Chulalongkorn---a pleasant surprise to see develop in the periphery.

Review: New Production of THE KING AND I is Simply Glorious at the La Mirada Theatre
The Company of THE KING AND I. Photo by Jason Niedle.

If you think about it, THE KING AND I itself is pretty remarkable as an advanced-for-its-time pioneer for Asian representation within a mass-consumed entertainment venture.

Composer Richard Rodgers and Lyricist/Book Writer Oscar Hammerstein III---the infamous musical theatre deities behind OKLAHOMA!, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and SOUTH PACIFIC---thought it was a good idea to adapt Margaret Landon's Anna and the King of Siam and turn it into a massively appealing musical with imbedded deep themes that still scream volumes to this day. How wonderfully progressive for the 1950's!

So, yes, admittedly... for partly selfish reasons, I enjoy seeing productions of THE KING AND I---especially gorgeous ones like this---because, in a not so hidden way, its a chance to see a bunch of people that look like me proudly show off their artistic prowess on a stage.

While some might say that the musical is from a different time and, therefore, may contain material that, now---viewed with a more thoughtful, 21st Century mindset---might reveal some outdated flaws. But I argue that in 1951, the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein choosing to focus an entire musical that features a budding friendship (maybe even a romance?!) and the sharing of mutual admiration and respect between members of diverse cultures is...downright revolutionary.

So if you would like to experience (or revisit) a well-done, utterly enchanting production of a timeless classic filled with memorable songs and impressive performances, look no further than the city of La Mirada for the next few weekends.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.

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Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Performances of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's THE KING AND I at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, May 14, 2023. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.

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