Arts & Culture

MTW’s ‘The King and I’ beautifully authentic

Music Theatre of Wichita just brought back Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 classic “The King and I” for the fifth time in four decades, and for the first time here, all the key Asian roles are sung by Asian actors.

That gives a freshness and a beautiful, if subtle, authenticity to a favorite show about the cultural and personal clash between the King of Siam and an outspoken English schoolteacher hired to Westernize his court in the 1860s.

Directed by Mark Madama, this revival is expectedly lush in exotic costumes and sets and powered by vocals that lift the rafters of Century II with glorious melodies, from the jaunty “I Whistle a Happy Tune” to the poignant “Hello, Young Lovers” to the rousing “Shall We Dance.”

Madama and choreographer Peggy Hickey treat the show with the respect it deserves, giving it a stately, unhurried pace while not neglecting the fun in the exquisitely literate verbal back-and-forths. The battle-of-the-sexes dialogue is still snappy even after 60 years.

Kim Huber, a Los Angeles-based actress who has a long history with MTW from “My Fair Lady” to “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” to “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” proves to be a sturdy and graceful Anna Leonowens, who can hold her own in the male-dominated 19th century. Remarkably, Huber will remind you of Julie Andrews at her peak, both in looks (that smile!) and in occasional vocal inflections (usually exasperation at the King).

Huber’s “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” rant is a comic delight, her “Getting to Know You” with the King’s children is utterly charming, and her “Hello, Young Lovers” can leave a lump in your throat with its exquisite beauty. And, boy, can she ever drive a huge ball gown around the dance floor with deceptive ease.

Broadway veteran Thom Sesma as the King – with hair for cultural correctness rather than shaved bald as pioneered by Yul Brynner – gives a more sophisticated reading to the sometimes pidgin English of the dialogue than you might expect. Sesma plays the unquestioned monarch as arrogant and arch rather than intimidating or terrifying. He keeps the character human, allowing us to see his endearing vulnerability in necessary moments without being a wimp (although I wish his hand-claps for attention were a little more authoritative).

Sesma’s “A Puzzlement” meditation as the King mulls over questions of “civilization” and politics is both comic and erudite – and surprisingly relevant to even today’s world views. His “Shall We Dance” duet with Anna is a joyous, dizzying highlight – as it was designed by Rodgers and Hammerstein to be.

Tami Swartz is the very picture of poise and dignity as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife (reprising her role from MTW’s 2002 version), and her operatic soprano gives tragic strength to her “Something Wonderful” portrait of her husband.

Kay Trinidad and Karl Josef Co, both making their MTW debuts, are attractive and compelling as the tragic young lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, who try to defy the King to find their own happiness. Trinidad’s clear, high soprano will give you chills as she slips easily into the highest reaches of “My Lord and Master,” and Co’s rich baritone can break your heart in “We Kiss in a Shadow.”

The centerpiece of Act II is “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” an Asian ballet interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and choreographer Hickey creates a colorful mélange of movement with featured dancer Lisa Gillespie as the runaway slave Eliza. The positioning, based on almost gymnastic, one-footed balance, was beautiful if occasionally a little shaky on opening night.

There were a couple of other technical issues opening night, from a bonnet that wouldn’t stay in place to someone stepping on one of the big ball gowns to a whip that didn’t quite crack convincingly to the 27-piece orchestra (the largest this season) that seemed to need a little more warming up before the overture. But all are minor glitches that likely won’t repeat in any other performance. Such is live theater.

“The King and I” is beautifully timeless.