King of Kings

Here's the page where I habitually whine about done-to-death musicals; where I make pissy comments about the dreary state of summer stock; where I bemoan the very existence of dinner theater. This is where I normally complain about having to drive 45 minutes to watch a retread of a super-popular selection from the American musical canon being massacred by choreographers who've plundered the famous film version and acted by people who believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

I'll have to save my bellyaching for another day because Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre's The King and I is superb. Against all odds (or at least those odds that suggest that all dinner theater is cheesy), this theater chain has turned out a musical worth second helpings.

That's saying something, because I'm not a big fan of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which I find plodding and dated, thanks to its politically incorrect story about an English school teacher who comes to 19th-century Siam to help Westernize the King's dozens of children. Its many catchy, now-standard tunes ("Hello Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance?", "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Something Wonderful," and "Getting To Know You" among them) are too routinely set up, and its overlong play-within-a-play production of Uncle Tom's Cabin has always bored me.

But director Brian J. Enzman (who, according to his playbill bio, has played the King of Siam a time or two) keeps this monster of a musical chugging along with seamless scene changes and subtle tweaks to scenes we've all seen before. And Enzman's cast could hardly be improved upon. Anna is a tough dame, affected and prim and, therefore, hard to portray as much more than a musical theater archetype. But Jennifer Davis-Johnson brings a great deal of warmth to the role as well as those rarest of commodities in local theater: a big, beautiful singing voice and a British accent that never strays or varies. Galloway Stevens resists the usual Yul Brynner impersonation, portraying a gentler, more convivial King of Siam who's so engaging that I was willing to overlook the peculiar, calisthenic dance moves designed for him by choreographer Molly Lajoie.

My only quibble with this production is that its costumes are not given top billing. If I were making posters to promote this show, they'd all read "John White and Mary Atkinson's Amazing Costume Design starring in The King and I." From Anna's several float-size, bustled gowns to the Kralahome's floor-length pleated skirts to the endless parade of gem-encrusted tunics and robes worn by the more than 30 players here, there isn't so much as a length of ribbon that isn't right. All this gorgeous plumage provides the perfect wrapper for a most excellent production of an old favorite, one I mistakenly thought I never wanted to see again.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela