What would CLOs do without Rodgers and Hammerstein?  There’s scarcely a season in which a regional Civic Light Opera doesn’t present at least one of their Big 5—Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King And I, or The Sound Of Music.  Fortunately for lovers of contemporary musicals, these Golden Oldies do hold up rather well, thank you. Theatergoers are assured of recognizing most if not all of the songs, the roles created by R & H offer actors some of the best in musical theater of any era, and the themes which R & H snuck in (racism, domestic violence, cross-cultural understanding, etc.) remain valid even half a century or more later.

Even today, 1951’s The King And I provides a still relevant example of how people from very different cultures can learn from each other and grow as human beings.  Well, perhaps in TK&I’s case, it’s mostly the Siamese who learn from the British, yet when staged and performed just right, schoolteacher Anna Leonowens also learns a great deal from her experiences with the King of Siam and the Siamese people—how to be less judgmental and more respectful of a foreign culture, and how to look beyond the surface to the person within.

If ever there’s been a production of The King And I that’s been staged and performed just right, it’s the one which opens Cabrillo Musical Theatre’s 2008-2009 season.

For starters, they’ve got about as splendid a King as can be imagined in Daniel Guzman. Guzman, oozing sex appeal in his chest-revealing outfits, borrows little from Yul Brynner, instead making the part very much his own.  This is a King with a great joie de vivre, evident in the twinkle in his eye and the playfully flirtatious way he interacts with Anna.  He’s equally terrific in his scenes opposite Crown Prince Chululongkorn (Ben Gutierrez, on his way to being a charismatic leading man in a few years), and the love and pride he feels for the heir to the throne is palpable.

Annie Nepomuceno as Lady Thiang sings “Something Wonderful” as I’ve never heard it sung before, in an exquisite alto as light as air, and she plays the role of the head wife with warmth and dignity. Lovely Janelle Velasquez, as Tuptim, makes the most of an underwritten role, and her duets with handsome Joseph Andreas as Lun Tha (“We Kiss In A Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”) show off two fine musical theater voices.  Glenn Shiroma is excellent as always in the role of The Kralahome (Prime Minister). All four actors are to be applauded for the dignity they bring to roles which were written without our contemporary sensibility to racial stereotyping, and one hopes that non-traditional casting will allow these fine performers opportunities to show off their talents in mainstream musicals.

Michael Kennedy (Louis Leonowens) and Olivia Lee (Princess Ying Yaowlak) are pintsized charmers, the former duetting with his stage mom a bouncy “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” and David Gilchrist (Captain Orton) and John Gaston (Sir Edward Ramsay) do fine work in non-singing roles.

If you’ve been wondering why I’ve so far failed to mention the “I” in The King And I, it’s because this review saves the best for last, and in Deborah Gibson, director Lewis Wilkenfeld not only scored a casting coup (“Debbie” Gibson did after all begin her career as a multi-talented pop superstar in the 1980s), but found about as perfect an Anna as can be imagined. In fact, I’ve never been as excited about a press release as I was when I read that Gibson had been cast in the role.

Admittedly I am a huge Deborah Gibson fan, and have been for 20 years, but more than that, I was excited that at last I’d be seeing an Anna young enough to have a 10-year-old son and radiant (and sexy) enough to turn the head of a King.

The real Anna Leonowens was a mere 31 when she went to Siam (today’s Thailand) to teach the children of the King, yet over the years, the role has become a mainstay for “older” actresses. Deborah Kerr was nearly 50 when she played Anna in the film version and Stefanie Powers was a dozen years older than that when she headlined the 2005 National Tour.

Gibson may have been a star for 21 years, but she was a mere sixteen when she became the youngest female artist ever to write, produce, and perform on a Billboard number-one single (“Foolish Beat”), and the singer-actress still looks scarcely out of her 20s. From the moment this Broadway vet steps onto the stage of the Fred Kavli Theatre, there is magic in the air, and no one can doubt that this Anna will enchant the King from their first meeting. Gibson sings the classics “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting To Know You,” and “Shall We Dance” in not only a commendable British accent but in a gorgeous “legit” voice which loses none of the magic of her pop stylings.

I’ve seen Guzman play the King before, but there’s an extra special something in his performance this time, and I believe it comes from playing opposite Gibson. The two performed together in New York when Gibson was just 14, and their rapport as adults brings to mind Tracy and Hepburn, the onstage friction between Anna and the King masking a whole heap of sexual and romantic chemistry.

This King And I has even more going for it than just star performances, beginning with Wilkenfeld’s direction. Productions like this one and last season’s Seven Brides For Seven Brothers prove Wilkenfeld to be a musical theater director at the top of his craft.

There’s no finer musical director than Darryl Archibald, and the 21-piece orchestra he conducts is bigger (and maybe even better) than Broadway. Heather Castillo has choreographed some charming numbers, including the justly famous polka of “Shall We Dance.” Irene Cho has recreated Jerome Robbins’ original choreography of “Small House Of Uncle Thomas” to perfection, interpreted by a flawless Janelle Doté, Emmie Nagata, Carina DiFiore, Heather Moffitt, Marcelin Jurbina, and Alison Haggerty.

Rand Ryan’s lighting is gorgeous, Jonathan Burke’s sound design as good as it gets, and the costumes (supervised by Christine Gibson) are, as might be imagined, stunning.

Once again saving the best for last, there are the sets, more spectacular than any you’re ever likely to see in a local CLO production. Why? Because they were created for the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera’s 1965 revival at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, which starred Ricardo Montalban and Florence Henderson. The LACLO spent a lot of 1965 dollars on these sets, and it shows. No mere two-dimensional flats here.  The King’s palace is fully three-dimensional and looks almost as if it had been transported direct from Bangkok to Thousand Oaks.

For Rodgers and Hammerstein shows to dazzle in the 21st Century, they cannot simply be “by the numbers” productions, as they occasionally are, prompting some to wonder, “What was all the fuss about?” Instead, they need to be approached with imagination and vitality, and both qualities are abundant in Cabrillo Music Theatre’s staging.  CMT’s two-week runs mean there is (sadly) just one more weekend to catch this musical theater treasure. Trust me, it’ll be a long, long wait before you see a better The King And I.

Fred Kavli Theatre, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks.

–Steven Stanley
October 19, 2008
Photos: Ed Krieger

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