Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Something wonderful

Highlights from a pitch-perfect production at the North Shore.

When theatrical entrepreneur Bill Hanney saved the North Shore Music Theatre a few years back, I didn't realize he was saving the traditional musical, too. But that is, in effect, what he has done. Not that the NSMT is devoted entirely to the classics - but still, about half the season every year remains safe from the likes of Tarzan and Footloose.  For which I, and the graying, sold-out house at the North Shore last Sunday, will be, I think, eternally grateful.

Or at least we will be as long as what's onstage is as transporting as the current production of The King and I (which only plays through this weekend).  On paper, I know what it sounds like: aging Falconcrest hunk Lorenzo Lamas aping Yul Brynner, and somebody you've never heard of trying to channel Deborah Kerr, in a lotta glittery costumes from somebody's warehouse somewhere.  But in person, on stage, trust me, it's something wonderful.

Although I confess, I too was skeptical (at first) of old Lorenzo.  I was never a Falconcrest fan (!), and I must report he can only boast about the same singing voice as Brynner - and while the ladies of the house were pleased to see he's still pretty pec-tacular, I felt he didn't quite have the sheer physical charisma which Yul made synonymous with the role.  But Lamas kind of sneaks up on you with a performance that's craftier, and wittier, than you expect - by the curtain, you may look at him with newfound respect.

And given that he is surrounded by a truly superb cast, that's saying something.   I won't bother you with the plot - you should already know it, for heaven's sake - but I will say that this is one of my favorite Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals; its book is punchy and compact, the music is one of Rodgers's most ravishing achievements, and it includes one of musical theatre's most charming sequences, Jerome Robbins' ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas."  And all these virtues all but pop in director Richard Stafford's thoughtfully rendered production, which generally tailors the action well to the North Shore's arena stage.

In what is actually the leading role (Brynner won the Tony for "Featured Actor"),  Kate Fisher is, to put it simply, just about perfect. Her take on Anna Leonowens, the proper young teacher who arrives in Siam to teach the King's children (and spar with him over human rights and romance), may not break any new artistic ground, but Fisher still colors the role with her own personality (this is an Anna far more frustrated than Deborah Kerr ever was) and sings in an enchanting style that channels the young Julie Andrews - just listen to the YouTube above if you doubt me.

There's equally strong work across the board in the supporting roles.  Lisa Yuen conjured a subtle and sympathetic Lady Thiang, and as the kingdom's major domo, Mel Sagrado Maghuyop proved such a spitfire that the ladies around me were surprised to discover he wasn't actually the King. The singing honors, however, had to go to the gorgeous warbling of Manna Nichols and Joshua Dela Cruz (at left, and above) who as the star-crossed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim took Rodgers standards like "We Kiss in a Shadow" into the vocal stratosphere.  Alas, the orchestral playing, under the direction of Craig Barna, wasn't quite in their league, but was nevertheless always solid, if not quite bewitching.

But wait, there were even more sharp performances around the edges of the show: Ron Wisniski contributed two delightful turns as British Empire types, and local boys Jack Favazza and Ellis Gage both distinguished themselves as Anna's son and the crown prince, respectively.

Meanwhile the costumes, by Paula Ninestein, were indeed glittery and very beautiful, and Eric D. Diaz's spare scenic design (and strikingly painted floor) conveyed more atmosphere than you had any right to expect. And then there was the exquisite dancing in "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," which painstakingly re-created the original Robbins choreography in the NSMT arena. I suppose I should warn politically-correct types that this mid-fifties mash-up of ethnicities (yes, in the movie, which you can watch on YouTube, Latinos played Asians playing African-Americans) could strike you as, well, "a failure of understanding," as folks like to say today.  So by all means, if you are like that, you should probably stay home and spend the evening patting yourself on the back; although I will note this fun fact: the real, rather imaginative Anna Leonowens wasn't quite the proper Brit she pretended to be - she was actually Anglo-Indian, so an A.R.T.-style production of The King and I could be in the offing someday! But in the meantime, everyone with a mature sense of cultural history and an appreciation for the arts should rush out to catch this pain-staking revival of one of the most moving and humane examples of musical theatre ever created.

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