The Stage West Community Playhouse's production of The King and I weekends through March 22 is a feast for the eyes and ears.
Sig Stock and crew's knockout sets and backdrops are profusions of color and detail; Christopher Berke's eight-piece orchestra has a pleasing depth of sound; director Leanne Germann's costumes are rich and vibrant; Jeanine Martin's choreography is sprightly; and the voices of the soloists and chorus are exceptional, especially Lynn Yarbrough's sweet, clear, steady mezzo-soprano that perfectly suits the character of widow/mother Anna Leonowens.
This obvious effort and talent makes it all the more distressing that the show falls short of its potential simply because of the dirgelike tempo of some of the songs and a pace that sometimes borders on lethargic. Even the curtain calls are sluggish, with players strolling onto the stage for their bows instead of bounding in with joy for a visually beautiful show.
Some judicious cuts (Do we really need two overtures? Every verse of every song? Opening and closing the grand curtain between scenes instead of playing transition scenes on the side aprons and simply rolling up backdrops in the semidarkness?) and a vigorous pace could right-size this show right now.
That said, there is much to enjoy in this show, including fine performances by three actors who, according to a director's message, stepped in at the last moment to fill roles after those originally cast dropped out — Peter Clapsis as the King, Maurice Batista as the king's chief of staff, The Kralahome, and Mitchell Gonzalez as the emissary from Burma, Lun Tha, who loves the young woman he has brought to the king as a gift from his country.
Clapsis plays the king struggling to keep his kingdom independent with a precise balance between genuine caring and careless despotism. Clapsis plays the king with respect; this man is no monster, but he is blithely unaware of the cruelty of his country's royal customs until Anna arrives from England to hold him up to a mirror.
In a scenario uncomfortably familiar, Anna decides that the only way to make Siam acceptable to her powerful homeland and thus keep it independent is to make its culture over in the image of England. The wives understand what's happening — "To prove that we're not barbarians, they dress us up like savages," they sing as they give up their practical native dress to don ridiculous hoopskirts when the English envoy arrives — even as the king goes along with the plan.
Such cultural and political themes and insights are what make many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals as timeless as Shakespeare.
The show is filled with their beautiful songs, sung winningly by an elegant Karen Doxey as Lady Thiang (Something Wonderful); beautifully by a lissome Victoria Primosch (My Lord and Master, We Kiss In a Shadow) as the vulnerable, unwilling slave/wife Tuptim; and with charm by young Matthew Romeo and Dakota Ruiz as Prince Chulalongkorn and Louis Leonowens (A Puzzlement).
The King and I is, arguably, the most elaborate production in recent Stage West history, with a huge cast and crew and obvious dedication. With a couple of nips and tucks and an infusion of get-up-and-go by conductor Berke and director Germann, this show can become one for the record books.