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Theater Works used to be housed in a small, barnlike building on West Thunderbird Road, a facility which made up in charm some of what it lacked in space and flexibility. With the inventive sets and lighting designs of technical director Jim Hyte, the old barn made an excellent, intimate space in which to see dramas, farces or cabaret-scaled musicals; however, no amount of crafty squeezing could give large-scale shows the room they needed to breathe.
The new Theater Works is in a Peoria strip mall--not much charm there, but a lot more square footage in which to work. The latest production, accordingly, is of a piece that can take full advantage of this extra elbow room: The King and I.
It's an uneven but quite agreeable show, most impressive, on the level of simple spectacle--working on a plainly tight budget, Hyte manages a perfectly acceptable 19th-century Siamese palace, and, with the exception of the miserably awkward opening scene on the boat, director Gregory Jaye's staging is proficient.
Jaye's handling of The Small House of Uncle Thomas, the lengthy ballet that reinterprets Uncle Tom's Cabin in the formal manner of Asian theatre, is more than proficient. It's the best part of the show, a rousing pageant with enchanting, masquelike flourishes, and some especially strong solo work by Cynthia Rose, miming the wicked "King Simon of Legree."
This Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut, full of unshakable, pretty songs which trick out operetta-style schmaltz with faux-Asian trappings, has a complex lineage. It's based on Margaret Landon's 1943 book Anna and the King of Siam, which is, in turn, based on The English Governess at the Siamese Court, the published diaries of a Welsh widow named Anna Leonowens, who spent the mid-1860s as tutor to the numerous children of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand).
Landon's book was made into a nonmusical film (1946) with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. R&H's musical adaptation opened on Broadway five years later, with Gertrude Lawrence as Anna and Yul Brynner as the King.
Although other actors (among them Herbert Lom and Alfred Drake) successfully played the King in the '50s, it eventually became Brynner's signature role. Almost everyone has seen this performance, either in the 1956 film or in one of Brynner's endless tours. Brynner's association with the play is unique in the American musical theatre--even Zero Mostel's Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof allows for interpretations by Theodore Bikel, Ed Ames and others.
The Brynner factor presents obvious problems to actors gutsy enough to attempt the part of the King, and Thom Morrison, the Theater Works heir to the throne, is no exception. He gives a likable, hardworking performance, but he comes off more petulant than regally irascible, and he isn't up to the part vocally.
All the same, this King isn't a caricature--Morrison lets us see past the swagger to the man's befuddled, basically decent soul. And when he looks at his children, we see him glow with pride through his put-on fatherly sternness. It's understandable--the dozen or so children in the play are remarkably cute and nonfidgety (a nod here should probably go to Nancy Kress and Robin Pappas, amusingly listed in the program as "child wranglers").
As Anna, Julia Thomson is properly prim and sweet yet sturdy of backbone, and her voice is pleasant and clean, if not rafter-shaking. The vocal winner of the evening is Erick Mauldin as Lun Tha, the ill-fated emissary from Burma who falls in love with one of the King's wives (Debra M. Qualtire). Mauldin looks about as Burmese as Tom Arnold, but his rich, mellow singing atones for his Occidental face and physique.
The supporting cast's voices are more variable, but none is well-served by the canned music, which gives the numbers a hollow sound. The lack of space for a live orchestra is a logistical problem that the company has yet to solve.
The King and I continues through Sunday, March 17, at Theater Works, 9850 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria.