Yul Brynner, his dome shining as he attempts to dominate the feisty Deborah Kerr, is who most envision when they think of The King and I. Brynner so embodied the King that it's difficult to separate the role from the man. Kerr and Brynner's movie turns as Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam are memorable. Currently, the cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, now running at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, attempt to live up to the greats.
The real Anna Leonowens must have been both intelligent and brave in a time when women were expected to be gentile and soft spoken. Left an impoverished widow, Anna opened a school to educate the children of officers stationed in Singapore. Unable to turn a profit, Anna accepted the position as governess to the children of the King. She educated both his children and wives in English. In her later years, Anna moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, helped found a college, and became a suffragette.
The woman who takes on the role of Anna has large shoes to fill. Unfortunately, Eileen Ward has petite feet. She plays a sweet Anna with a lovely, vibrato voice. Her insolence isn't believable. Anna must be a commanding presence in order to stand up to the intimidating King. Not until her delivery of "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You" does Ward proclaim that she is Anna.
Costume designer Laura Simcox dresses Ward in lace, ribbon, and poof-covered, period-appropriate hoop skirts (think Scarlett O'Hara.) in a variety of pastels. Clothes could create Anna as a sensible and strong woman, but, instead, they cast her as a girly girl. When Anna's gorgeous pink ball gown is revealed, it doesn't have the "ooh-aaah" impact it should, because all of her costumes are equally stunning.
King Mongkut was an educated man, innovative in educating his family in Western culture. Fulfilling every expectation set by Brynner, Ronald M. Banks, as the King, commands the stage. Dressed in dark silks with gold brocade, the King is often bare-chested and -footed --- and Banks has the body to pull it off. In combination with a strong voice, confident delivery, and sense of humor, Banks' performance is exceptional.
Given by Burma to appease the King, Tuptim, played by JihyenPark, is resistant to her role as concubine. In love with another man, she wishes to escape her life of servitude. In her first appearance, Park is encircled in a spotlight. Tuptim is alone and scared, questioning her future as she sings "My Lord and Master." Park has a glorious, lilting voice that, when she hits high notes, will literally inspire chills.
It's important to see Asian roles played by Asian actors, as most of the leads are. However, it was surprising to see political incorrectness in the costuming of the ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas." Tuptim stages this theatrical rendition of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in an attempt to impress the British with Siam's civilized culture. Uncle Tom appears on stage wearing a smiling black mask and a sparkling, golden tap dancing costume; Topsy wears a wig with cornrow braids sticking straight out, a ribbon at the end of each. This can be interpreted as Tuptim's misunderstanding of African-American culture, but there must be a better way to costume these characters than simply relying on stereotypes.
The production is a swirling dance of stunning colors, innocent humor, and beautiful children with exuberant energy. Although the pacing lags and the moral that adopting another culture's beliefs is necessary in order to escape colonization is sad, it's still worth the drive to hear classic tunes such as "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance" cheerily delivered.
The King and I | through July 14 | $32-$36 | Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, EmersonPark, Auburn, 315-255-1785, www.merry-go-round.com