If you haven’t yet reserved your seats for THE KING & I, take the critics advice and get them reserved right away because the show is a sure sell-out. Read on for a wonderful review of the show from Kristy Blackmon of The Column by John Garcia and then call 817-202-0600 or visit www.plaza-theatre.com to reserve.
__________________THE KING & I at Plaza Theatre Company___________________
by Kristy Blackmon, associate theatre critic for The Column by John Garcia
Even more than most big budget shows from that mid-20th century golden age of American musical theatre, Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1951 extravaganza The King and I demands opulence and technical excellence. This type of show is the preferred niche of Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne, despite its small stage; The King and I is the season opener this year for a lineup that includes Kiss Me Kate, Camelot and Little Shop of Horrors. On nearly every technical front, Plaza outshone itself with this production. The crew of The King and I deserved a curtain call and standing ovation of its own.
Tina Barrus’ costume design never fails to impress me but her work on this show absolutely blew me away. From the wide hoop skirts and frilly touches on the dresses worn by Anna Leonowens, the English schoolteacher who has come to teach the royal children of Siam, to the rich and exotic costumes of the Siamese royal court, each piece was extensively researched and crafted from scratch (according to one producer’s announcement at intermission). Each outfit surpassed the one that came before. During the climax of the second act, when the court entertains a group of visiting English dignitaries with an elaborate dinner and play, the audience gasped audibly when Browning revealed her gorgeous mint green, antebellum ball gown. No less impressive were the stunning costumes worn during the court’s theatrical rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which they call “The Small House of Uncle Tom”. The attention to detail in each piece was absolutely remarkable. Once again, I take my hat off to Ms. Barrus and her group of dedicated costume crew members. Their excellence played a large part in what made this show a success.
The set design by JaceSon P. Barrus and props by Tammie Phillips were also worthy of special note. It was obvious that Phillips, like Tina Barrus, had done her research; each prop was historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing. Rarely are props a technical element that catches my attention, but Phillips did an exceptionally good job with this production. JaceSon Barrus’ sets were beautiful, especially the royal gardens where star-crossed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha carry out their sweet, secret rendezvous. While the transition of some of the larger pieces between scenes made for one or two rather excessively long blackouts (a technical faux pas that typically drives me insane), I understand in this instance the directorial decision to prioritize scenic ambience over unbroken action. JaceSon Barrus’ sets and Tina Barrus’ costumes were enough to draw the audience back in every time an extensive blackout lost their attention.
Overall, Cameron Barrus’ light design was successful, especially during the moonlit assignations of Tuptim and Lun Tha and during the dramatic performance of “The Small House of Uncle Tom” in the second act. However, the lighting was very distracting in many of the solo numbers, most notably during the number “A Puzzlement”, sung by the King. The King paced the entire length of the space more than once during the number, and instead of just lighting the whole stage and giving him free reign to really settle into the part, a long series of isolated spots forced him to hit specific marks at very specific times in order to stay lit. While the actor is experienced enough to find the light most of the time, the design was simply too complicated and convoluted to keep up with, and we lost him to shadow more than once.
G. Aaron Siler had one or two problems with his sound design, as well, which is a very rare and slightly surprising occurrence. Vela’s high soprano, while clear, tended toward the thin side, and she was overwhelmed more than once by the orchestrations. There were also some issues with the actors’ microphones; Browning’s completely went out a few minutes before the end of the show. Luckily, she had no songs left and the space is small enough that her speaking voice carried. These missteps are noteworthy mainly because they are very uncommon departures from Siler’s typical mastery of the sound at this theater.
Keli Price did a brilliant job choreographing the ballet for “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” adapting the original choreography of Jerome Robbins to the small stage with highly evident skill. The dance corps was remarkable in this scene, especially the dancers playing Eliza and George/the Angel. It’s a shame these roles went uncredited, as this was undoubtedly one of the most successful scenes of the musical. Every designer got a chance to push themselves and prove their technical chops during this play-within-a-play, and both the haunting beauty of the dancing and Vela’s narration highlighted the irony of the performance, in which the struggle of an American slave to escape her cruel master and assert her God-given right to happiness is portrayed by subjects of the King who are essentially slaves themselves. I could have gone to see this production solely for this sequence.
Browning was commendable as Anna Leonowens and channeled the same kind, yet no-nonsense tone we saw from her last season as Maria in Plaza’s The Sound of Music. Her singing voice was pleasant, and she did a good job in numbers with the children and wives. Though she got off to a rocky start with the opening classic “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” missing her cue and just giving an okay vocal performance, she seemed much more collected and at ease while reminiscing during “Hello, Young Lovers.” By the time she sang “Getting to Know You” to her students, she displayed a heart-warming connection to the women and children of the Royal Palace.
Browning truly came alive, however, during her scenes with Joel Lagrone, and vice versa. While both actors could seem one-dimensional in their own separate scenes, they had an obvious chemistry and played extremely well off of one another when they shared the stage together. Lagrone was (forgive me) absolutely adorable as the stubborn and proud king who knows he needs to change in order to bring his country into modern times, but cannot bear to let Anna see his insecurity. Meanwhile, Browning was nowhere more likable than in her scenes with him. Equally stubborn and proud, Anna is also wise enough to know when to choose her battles, and intuitive enough to see straight through the King’s blustering. Browning was quick to play off of Lagrone; their dialogue was nicely paced, and Browning used pauses and facial expressions very effectively in their interactions. Browning’s Anna ached to protect the King from both outside threats and his own vanity, and her sense of betrayal at his inability to fully shed his old, “barbaric” ways was heartbreaking.
Joel Lagrone caught the hearts of the audience early as the King, and then never let them go. By the time he finished his solo “A Puzzlement,” he had us eating out of the palm of his hand. Every interaction with Anna or his children made him more lovable. When Lagrone pulled Anna close during “Shall We Dance?” and swept her around the stage in a grand, joyous polka, the audience applauded. And when he handed the kingdom over to his young son and died at the end of the play, at least half of the people around me wiped away tears. Lagrone gave a nuanced, energetic performance that was the best of the night for me.
Another standout was Christia Caudle as Lady Thiang, the King’s wise head wife who knows him better than anyone else and sees what all the other characters are trying to hide, including Anna’s feelings for the King and Tuptim’s feelings for Lun Tha. Caudle’s quiet strength was remarkable, and her solo love song to the King, “Something Wonderful,” was a highlight of the evening. She had the best singing voice of anyone in the cast, a clear, powerful soprano that she controlled easily. One of the areas in which Plaza consistently excels is in its supporting cast members, and Caudle’s performance continued the trend.
Jay A. Cornils as the King’s personal servant Kralahome was also strong in a small part. His portrayal of devotion and fierce loyalty to the King was touching.
Jonathan Metting displayed strong vocals as Tuptims’s lover Lun Tha. His rich baritone soared through the space during his duets with Vela, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” He struggled with trying not to overpower Vela’s vocals, which were clear and pretty but not strong, and certainly not equal to his loud, powerful high notes. The pair lacked chemistry, but their scenes were still pleasurable and sweet.
Vela portrayed the angry, defiant side of Tuptim well. Her opening solo “My Lord and Master” was full of bitterness and surprisingly touching. For me, her most successful scene was when she narrated “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Her melodious voice was sweet, yet never boring. She channeled the emotions of the characters she was reading about into the tone of her voice. The irony of the story is not lost on Tuptim, and Vela’s voice showed a mounting frustration with the King’s inability to see it.
The other royal wives and their children were wonderfully endearing. It can be challenging for such a large ensemble—especially one composed of so many children—to share the stage while not taking attention away from the main action, but it wasn’t once a problem during this production.
While the performances ranged from solid to excellent, it was the visual elements of this production that would make me drive out to Cleburne to see it a second time. Plaza Theatre Company continues to excel in this genre of crowd pleasing, big classic musicals. The King and I is a fabulous start to their season and, hopefully, a good indication of what 2014 has in store for their fans.