When you’ve seen a musical theater classic like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King And I as many times as I have, the excitement of each new production (besides the pleasure of revisiting an old favorite) is seeing new performers, directors, choreographers, musical directors, and designers put their own stamp on it.

As directed by Ovation-winning Jan Duncan, with the title roles superbly filled by Clynell Jackson III and Victoria Strong, FCLO Music Theatre’s staging is a sure bet to delight young and old, TK&I rookies and vets alike.

The King And I has been revived so many times over the past fifty-eight years, and the film classic starring Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and the voice of Marni Nixon has been seen by so many millions, that few remain unfamiliar with the tale of Anna Leonowens, who became school teacher to the children of the King of Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860s.  Millions upon millions too have heard the show’s oft-performed and recorded hits, which include “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting To Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall We Dance.”  In fact, there’s hardly a song in The King And I that hasn’t become a standard. As sung by Jackson, Strong, and the rest of FCLO’s sensational cast, it’s easy to see why.

Of all the Kings I’ve seen, Jackson comes the closest to matching the King by whom all Kings are judged, that of the late, great Brynner, who in 1985 received a Special Tony award honoring his mind-boggling 4,525 performances in the role.  Like Brynner, Jackson brings gravitas and a real sense of power to the King; he is someone entirely believable as the sovereign of a great land.  Intelligence and humor radiate throughout Jackson’s performance as well.  No wonder an educated Englishwoman fell for this man who still believed that the world was carried on the back of a giant turtle.

Southern California treasure Strong is quite possibly the most versatile of our musical theater stars. Like a chameleon, she has transformed herself into Annie Oakley, Eliza Doolittle, Fiddler’s Golde, Oliver’s Nancy, Phantom’s Christine and countless others over her career.  Strong’s Anna (this is her seventh time playing the role) is about as definitive a performance as you will see.  What sets her Anna apart is that in addition to her lovely soprano, Strong acts the heck out of the role, whether tearing up at the memory of her late husband Tom, or sparring with the King of Siam, or (most powerfully) placing herself between slave girl Tuptim and the King’s vengeful whip.  This is one dazzling performance indeed.

FCLO’s Kim in Miss Saigon (for which she won the Ovation Award for Best Actress), Kristine Remigio lends her soaring soprano to “My Lord And Master,” and duets “We Kiss In A Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” with an equally fine-voiced Richard Bermudez as Lun Tha. Costumer Ambra King Wakefield has wisely kept the handsome and talented Bermudez shirtless, the better to display his bodybuilder’s physique. 

Glenn Shiroma makes the absolute most of the supporting role of the Kralahome, Yoly Tolentino sings “Something Wonderful” with warmth and power, and Michael Laurie does fine work as both Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsay.

Just as they were in last year’s Oliver, talented child performers Chase Del Rey and Anthony Skillman are perfectly matched as Prince Chululongkorn and Louis Leonowens. Each has his moment to shine, Del Rey opposite Skillman in a delightful reprise of “A Puzzlement” and Skillman opposite Strong in “I Whistle A Happy Tune.”

Karen Nowicki’s as always excellent choreography includes the classic “Shall We Dance” sequence and most notably the legendary “Small House Of Uncle Thomas Ballet,” originally choreographed by Broadway’s one-and-only Jerome Robbins.

The 20-piece FCLO orchestra, conducted by musical director Todd Helm, can easily compete with if not surpass any orchestra on the Great White Way, and as was the case last October with Oklahoma!, seeing all 21 musicians rise up from the pit to audience level during an impeccably performed Overture is a thrill rarely felt in musical theater.

FCLO’s uncredited set design has a distinctive animated film background look, and is easily the most colorful TK&I set I’ve seen, especially as lit in Technicolor brilliance by Christina L. Munich. Wakefield’s costumes, whether Anna’s gorgeous hoop-skirted gowns or native Siamese garb are stunning.  Thumbs up too to A.J. Gonzalez’s sound design.

Performing in “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas” are principal dancer Annie Yee, Julie Avila (Little Eva), Caesar F. Barajas (Uncle Thomas), Amanda Galang (Angel George), Omar Garibay (Master), Natalie MacInnis (Dog), Betty Le (Dog), Sarah Moser (Topsy), Marc Andrew Nunez (Master), Kenneth Rivera (Master), dance captain Paul Romero Jr. (King Simon), and Kristen Ueda (Dog).

As always, “March Of The Siamese Children” is a TK&I highlight, and they’re an adorable bunch of Siamese Children indeed: Olivia Aniceto, Nicholas Bugarin, Joshua Sun Duncan, Jason Hill, Nathan Hill, Elliot Kang, Jeannie Mai, Talia Saldana, Blythe Su-Re Schulte, Matthew Tanaka, Carter Thomas, and Annmarie Verkulyen.

Other featured performers include Brent Myang (The Interpreter), Teofilo Pagaduan (Phra Alack), and Megan Sun Duncan (Princess Ying Laowlack).  The King’s wives (as least those in royal favor) are Leah Anderson, Megan Kim Anderson, Sharyn Danielson, Minjung Edall, Katrice Gavino, Lisa Luke Hill, Kimberly Himelman, Amanda Magada, Malee Martinez, and Linette Roungchun.  Kira Alvarez and Olivia Haugen are the Amazons. Eric Badique, Israel Cortez, Garrett Esparza, and Ken Shima appear as the Priests.

With The King And I, FCLO Music Theatre one again proves itself among California’s best. Longtime Rodgers and Hammerstein fans and newbies alike are sure to delight in this absolutely first-rate staging of the Broadway classic.

FCLO Music Theatre, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.

–Steven Stanley
May 14, 2009

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