Like falling in love at first sight…within the first couple of minutes of the entrances of Mrs. Anna (Luann Aronson) and The King of Siam (Joe Nemmers) in Lyric Stage’s The King and I, the audience finds itself smitten. Good thing, too. This is an unforgettable production, resplendent with a wide array of vocal power, imagination-sparking visual imagery, masterful choreography and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization’s original Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestration for thirty-five-piece orchestra. What a let down if Mrs. Anna and the King didn’t strum audience heart strings with full resonance. This show’s a winner in every aspect.
It’s the first time since 1951 that any audience has seen or heard The King and I as it was fully envisioned. Bruce Pomahac, Director of Music for The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization describes the re-creation process, “For four years we’ve been tracking down and examining the original Broadway scripts, scores and instrumental parts in order to put back into the show pieces of the puzzle that have been missing for over fifty years.” To see this musical performed by Lyric Stage’s 2009 cast feels like how it must have during an earlier era when the musical theatre art form dominated the imaginations and tastes of a performance-hungry public. Opening night’s full house adored and cheered and wept over this stunning re-creation. What a score—full, rich, enhanced with tuba and harp and percussive elements, it results in an orchestration that illustrates, foreshadows, accents and sets the tone for a dynamic story of love and transformation.
The believable characterizations and engaging chemistry of Anna and the King of Siam as portrayed by Aronson and Nemmers facilitate the triumph. Ms. Aronson exudes a calm, lady-like grace, and a steady confidence attesting to character and life experience. It makes her a commanding figure, even swathed in the restrictive bodice and huge hoop skirts of late 19th century Western culture, a “burka” of sorts. At the same time, she reveals vulnerability, a modern, human side, so easy to relate to today. Her vocal technique and interpretation are impeccable. Her “Getting to Know You” is as full of warmth and personal delight in addition to lyrical voicing as her “Hello, Young Lovers” reveals the mature sorrow of a widow still capable of deepest passion. This sets the audience up to understand her ultimate entrancement with the King of Siam. And what a king Joe Nemmers creates. Slightly shorter than Aronson, Nemmers dominates the stage through force of personality. He possesses the regal bravado of a caring, intelligent man deeply committed to leading his people wisely yet more and more confused and overwhelmed by an encroaching world that threatens his entire culture. Nemmers has a complicated challenge. Not only does he have to convey the personal transformations of a man falling in love in spite of himself and learning restraint in dealing with other people without losing regal demeanor and control, he has to overcome its Yul Brynner stereotype. Like Brynner, Nemmers isn’t a powerful singer; but that’s where the similarity ends. He infuses the role with a masculine vitality and endearing innocence that makes him a powerful delight to watch. He’s fresh, as though the role has never been performed before. The audience can’t wait to see his exchanges with Mrs. Anna explode. The spontaneous joy and romantic fire generated by their triumphant “Shall We Dance” deserves encore repetition. The audience is swept away by the revelation of honest attraction as its reality overtakes the King and Mrs. Anna. We are all left breathless. Positively breathless.
The Lyric Stage production of The King and I teems with excellent performances. Adrian Li Donni excels in superior vocal delivery and clearly defined acting as the Concubine TupTim’s illegal lover Lun Tha as if Broadway great Alfred Drake has been reborn. The lovers’ duet “I Have Dreamed”, sung with statuesque, glamorous Jung Eun Kim as TupTim, soars to glorious operatic heights in Act 2, while firmly remaining mainstream musical theater, thanks to the talent and skill of the two performers. The Uncle Tom Ballet with twelve dancers plus eight leads and an onstage percussionist, choreographed by Ann Nieman, is a completely transformational, evocative performance unto itself.
The King and I, considered by Oscar Hammerstein to be “our best work”, is about as politically incorrect as a 1951 musical can be. Yet given the sensitive, respectful staging and interpretation by Music Director Jay Dias and Stage Director Cheryl Denson with a boldly undisguised multi-cultural cast, it makes a potent statement about the clash of incongruent cultures in a fast-paced modern world. We in the Dallas/Ft. Worth region are so lucky that the National Endowment for the Arts saw fit to award Lyric Stage with a grant to mount this magnificent production. Please don’t miss The King and I. It’s no “puzzlement” that it’s a stunning success.
Performances of The King and I continue June 25, 26 and 27 @ 8:00 PM and June 28 @ 2:30 PM. Performances are in the Irving Arts Center’s Carpenter Performance Hall, 3333 N. Mac Arthur Blvd, Irving, Texas. Tickets, priced from $20-$50, are available online @ http://www.lyricstage.org or by calling 972-252-2787.