Aug. 04--Canadian-born theater director Stafford Arima has a resume that reads like a breathless Tony Awards introduction: He's worked on Broadway. He's directed at London's West End. His press reviews are seasoned with words like "Runyonesque," "pathos" and "impressionistic." And he was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award (the British equivalent of a Tony) for his direction of the musical epic "Ragtime" in 2004.
But this week, he's returned to Sacramento -- as he has four times in the past 11 years -- to direct a Music Circus production. This time, it's "The King and I," an elegant moral tale that follows Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, as she struggles against the patriarchal culture of 1860s Siam.
The show, one of many in the canon of musical theater progenitors Rodgers and Hammerstein, has been performed at Music Circus 12 times.
So what keeps a director with Arima's cachet coming back to direct musicals under the Teflon-coated tent in Sacramento?
"It's a really rich playground for opportunities and staging and choreography," he said this past week at Music Circus.
At the 2,203-seat Wells Fargo Pavilion, actors enter the round stage through the aisles and are surrounded at all times by the audience. Set pieces sometimes obscure the stage, and actors constantly have their backs to some members of the audience, factors that challenge Arima to use the space inventively.
But beyond the venue, "The King and I" is a departure from the youthful and edgy work that has gained Arima notoriety.
Take, for example, "Altar Boyz," a cheeky answer to the rise of fatuous boy bands and mainstream evangelical music, which debuted at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004 and went on for a five-year run.
Eight years later, in 2012, Arima won critical acclaim for a three-week run of "Bare," a musical that discusses homosexual bullying and high school suicide by invoking tropes of forbidden love found in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
"The King and I," with its period costumes and setting, stands in stark contrast to those modern productions, but Arima takes it seriously. And he thinks audiences should, too.
"I respect it for what it is, which is a great work of musical theater that's withstood the test of time," he said.
There are rich lessons about feminism and diversity buried in the 1951 libretto that modern-day audiences could benefit from -- for example, mutual respect of foreign cultures and equal treatment of women, Arima said.
Although Leonowens and the king of Siam strike up an antagonistic relationship at first, they soften toward each other by the end: he by learning to respect women; she by learning to appreciate his sense of pride and responsibility.
"Agism, sexism, all of that is still part of our world," Arima said. "And pieces like 'The King and I' can illuminate those relationships in a way that sadly exist today."
Arima also sees the musical as a clash of cultures, a piece that addresses how completely different individuals can learn from one another over the course of just a few months.
"I think inevitably my goal has always been to bring narratives to the stage that have the potential to heal and transform an audience," Arima said.
Glenn Casale, the artistic director of California Musical Theatre, chose Arima to direct "The King and I" not because of his litany of directing credits in New York and abroad but because of his lengthy track record in Sacramento, which began in 2002 with "Paint Your Wagon." (It was the last show performed at Music Circus before the violet and green tent was torn down to make way for the Wells Fargo Pavilion.)
Since then, Arima has directed four other Music Circus shows: "Ragtime" (2003), "Jesus Christ Superstar" (2005), "A Little Night Music" (2006) and "Miss Saigon" (2011).
" 'The King and I' is such a delicate piece," Casale said. "I wanted to bring somebody in who I knew could tell a good story."
For Arima, the point is to bring a story to life. And whether he's working in New York City, London or Sacramento, he believes each show has the potential to inspire, entertain and instruct the audience.
"My job is not to put a museum piece onstage," he said, "but to establish that a piece like this does have relevance today."
THE KING AND I
What: A Music Circus production of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most treasured musicals.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
Information: (916) 557-1999; www.tickets.com or www.sacramentomusiccircus.com
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