What could be better than the diversion of a musical spectacle during hard times? The country is at war, the economy has fallen off into an undeniable recession, and looming threats of domestic terrorism have created a new culture of quietly panicking hermits. Such times never fail to produce dazzlingly frivolous entertainment.
Take the Great Depression, for example: I challenge anyone to come up with anything more spectacularly vapid than the musical films choreographed by Busby Berkeley during that wretched decade. Cameras pass quickly between the legs of chorus girls lined up on black-laquered deco staircase; Carmen Miranda sachets beneath a gauntlet of giant bananas in an ejaculatory water ballet. Not that the American entertainment industry has ever been particularly given towards introspection.
And let's face it, you aren't going to see the Repertory Theatre Company's new production of The King and I for its feminist subtext or its riveting take on colonialism. You want to see old Siam, the opulence of the palace, and the color wheel of costumes. Most of all, you want to hum along to "Getting to Know You."
Based on a true story by Margaret Landon, The King and I tells the story of an English schoolteacher who travels to Siam in 1862 to teach the many children of the polygamous King of Siam. Fearful of British intentions to annex and colonize Siam, the King hopes to use Anna to modernize the education of his children, and help change England's perception of him as a "barbarian." Old World vs. New World, myth vs. science, East vs. West, and the dramatically different status of men and women are the central conflicts.
I'm always reluctant to see any live production on a preview night. Repertory theater, in particular, always carries the weight of expectation from past productions. (Yul Brynner anyone?) Understandable nerves and their resulting glitches often kink the flow. And Thursday night's preview was no exception.
Though Sally Hybl's (Anna) robust voice carried well, and Ronnie Guha (The King, and spitting image of the young Yul Brynner) had excellent timing and good projection, the sound during the first act was barely audible from the middle rows (a problem they've corrected). The orchestra also fumbled a bit through what should have been several sweeping numbers (including "Getting to Know You").
Thankfully, Nancy Hankin's gorgeously minimal fabric set design supplied the requisite grandiosity for the King's palace, and overwhelmed the other deficiencies. Using a deep red, hand-painted fabric with a hand-stenciled gold design, Hankin created a colonnade topped with gold Buddhas that gave the set a vertical, "storybook" look. With a limited budget, and her experience with Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Hankin was able to create a functionally spare, yet regal backdrop.
Also well executed were Anita Marciano's and Holly Smith's costumes. The understated, overdressed, Puritanical look of Anna set against the peacock brilliance of the Siamese costuming added well to the themes of cultural conflict.
By far the most impressive scene in The King and I was the ballet enactment of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the second act. A collaboration between choreographer Janet Johnson and Nancy Hankin, the ballet drew from Jerome Robbins' original choreography, the film versions of the musical, and research into traditional Thai theater. Featuring bamboo poles and fabric abstractions as the central props, with the sun, clouds, lightning and snow dangling as mobiles above, the piece culminates with Randi Kemper (Eliza) and Christin Zapp (Angel) performing a gorgeous ballet interpretation of ice skating, a long piece of white cloth serving as the frozen river.
Though the Fine Arts Center is about as off-Broadway as it gets, don't miss this chance to get out, stop testing for anthrax, and sweep your panic away.