News Column

RRT presents 'The King and I'

July 5, 2013

YellowBrix

July 05--When the average person thinks of a local theater production, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Shakespeare. But "The King and I" is almost always a close second.

There's a reason why Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's momentous 1951 musical has been performed by thousands of community theater groups, professional theater groups, high schools and colleges around the country. It's simply that great. It's simply that magical.

It's simply that timeless.

"If you're interested in art, interested in music, interested in fashion -- if you're involved in art at all -- you have a responsibility to see this show," says Jeff Haney, director of Robidoux Resident Theatre's upcoming production of "The King and I," which will be presented from July 12 through 14 at the Missouri Theater. "If you want people to appreciate your artform and go see 'Kinky Boots,' then you've got to come see Rodgers & Hammerstein every chance you get. It's like listening to rock music and completely ignoring Elvis Presley. You've got to go back to the basics."

Rodgers & Hammerstein created several legendary pieces of American theater, from "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific" to "Cinderella" and "The Sound of Music," but arguably none have been as resoundingly successful as "The King and I," which was based on the 1944 novel "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon.

Set in the 1860s, the musical relays the experiences of Anna, a British schoolteacher hired as part of the King of Siam's drive to modernize his traditional country. The relationship between the King and Anna is marked by conflict through much of the piece -- the two strong-willed characters often butt heads -- as well as by a love that neither can admit.

The original Broadway production was written as a star vehicle for the outstanding veteran actress Gertrude Lawrence, who starred as Anna alongside Yul Brynner as The King. After her untimely death in 1952 and the subsequent film adaptation released in 1956, however, Brynner was thrust into the spotlight. He stayed there for the rest of his 4,625 performances as The King, including a 1977 Broadway revival, a London Production in 1979 and another Broadway revival in 1985.

Brynner's stern, bellowing portrayal has become synonymous with the the King of Siam, which always makes it tough for any other actor to step into the role. After all, these men want to discover their own emotional journeys with the character, but they also want to try to re-capture the iconic magic that Brynner brought to The King. Steve Snider, who will play The King in RRT's production, says he's embracing Brynner's well-known take.

"I don't hesitate to tell anybody that I'm trying to be as close to what he was as possible. He was just so good at what he did," says Snider, who's playing The King for the third time in his lifetime (the first was in high school and the second came in RRT's 1995 production). "I'm going to try to come somewhere close to that level if I can."

Haney says it's not just Snider's performance, but RRT's entire musical that will largely pay homage to the Broadway classic. However, there will be a few small differences that he hopes will make the play more enjoyable for a modern audience. Notably, the crew is using unit set pieces that will allow for quicker scene changes. Productions of "The King and I" often grow dull because of a slow pace, but that won't happen at the Missouri Theater.

Haney adds that RRT's version will put an extra emphasis on the script's funny, lighthearted moments that are typically overlooked.

"Often, we get bogged down into the political parts of it and the Victorian meeting the Orient, but there are scenes that are truly funny," Haney says. "And it makes you feel for The King and know that there's another side to this guy that's bellowing about quite often in the beginning. There's great comedy that's so real, and I don't know that Yul Brynner got that or was even going for that."

Another aspect that Haney and the cast want to emphasize is equality. Gertrude Lawrence was the star in the original production. Brynner carried the show after her passing. RRT's production wants to give equal credence to both Anna (played in RRT's production by Carol Myers), who keeps people's human rights at heart, and The King, who's stubbornly reluctant to change in his palace despite his modernist vows.

Through their clashes, they're not only setting the foundation for big changes in Siam (which eventually became Thailand), they're also giving each other new views and pushing each other to tap into emotions they've never felt before. They see "The King and I" as a story of subdued love, mutual respect and the ripples of one person's substantial voice.

"They change each other. There's no doubt that, in the end, you sense a great deal of effect on each other," Haney says. "That's where the love occurs, so it's as intense of a love story as you'll find in any musical."

"Jeff has brought some things to bear about the understanding of the interplay between these two characters," Snider adds. "It's a battle of wills. And who's going to win? It's the situation that wins. It's the natural course of history that wins. It's not Anna. It's not The King. It's where it had to proceed that wins out at the end."

As if the story of Anna and The King wasn't captivating enough, "The King and I" also offers the spectacle of an exotic Siamese kingdom, an incredible palatial ballet (choreographed by Marla Heeler of the Dance Arts Center) and some of the greatest musical numbers ever written. From the upbeat "Getting to Know You" and the hopeful "I Have Dreamed," to the heartwarming "Shall We Dance" and the absolutely beautiful "Something Wonderful," the greatness of these songs have truly thrusted them into the pop culture lexicon.

"There's no doubt they're writing some of their best music in this thing," Haney says.

While Snider and Myers anchor the story, Haney says it's Ashley Kempt (who plays Lady Thiang, the King's chief wife), Adrianne Collins (who plays Tuptim, a slave brought from Burma to be one of the King's junior wives) and David Groth (who plays Lun Tha, a Burmese scholar in love with Tuptim) who really shine in the musical numbers. The production also features 22 local children, who Haney, Snider and Myers say they've had a blast working with.

Between that big outreach in the community, a flurry of classic musical numbers, a stirring historic tale and the grand spectacle of one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's greatest works, the cast knows they're part of a production that St. Joseph theater-goers will be talking about for many years to come.

"I love the oldies but goodies, and this one's a beautiful production," Myers says. "It really stands the test of time."

"The King and I" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on July 12 and 13 at the Missouri Theater with a performance at 2 p.m. on July 14. For tickets or more information, call Robidoux Resident Theatre at (816) 232-1778 or visit rrtstjoe.org.

Shea Conner can be reached at shea.conner@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @stjoelivedotcom.

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