"The King and I," the great Rogers and Hammerstein reworking of "Anna and the King of Siam," is a royal toughie to bring off, because one superior leading player simply isn't enough.
King Mongkut, the imperious Siamese ruler anxiously maneuvering his country through the peril of modernization, and Anna, the British schoolmistress who comes to Siam to teach the royal children, must both be brought to the stage by gifted actors if the production is to succeed.
Adding to the problem is that the King is indelibly etched in our minds as the exclusive province of the late Yul Brynner, the extraordinary originator of the role. I should think that any and all would-be Kings of Siam would tremble at the thought of inevitable comparisons.
But the Pasadena Theatre Company has found not one, but two exceptional leads and, as a result, PTC's "The King and I" will go down as the troupe's most successful musical production of recent years.
Chuck Richards, a veteran of many local professional productions, does exceptionally well as the king. He is haughty and thoroughly charismatic. While his sense of dramatic timing is very fine, Mr. Richards also knows how to play for a laugh, which, devotees of the script will remember, the king must also do. His big soliloquy, "A Puzzlement," is nicely delivered, though Mr. Richards is not helped by the lagging tempo set from the pit.
Most importantly, we get far more than a parody of Yul Brynner: Richards does it his way and, while all memories are not erased, the performance stands admirably on its own. And if Mr. Richards isn't bald, so what? Neither was the real Mongkut, whose likeness graces the program.
Jill Compton, another favorite from Colonial Players, the Summer Garden Theater, and other theater companies, is delightful as Anna, a strong-willed, principled, wise complement to the king she assists so well.
Ms. Compton, as always, sings beautifully, which is necessary since she is entrusted with four of the most enduring songs ever written: "Hello Young Lovers," "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?" She is also delightfully funny in her barbed critique of the king, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You."
Among the secondary players, Kathy Romaine excels as "Lady Thiang," the king's No. 1 wife, who senses and appreciates the unique relationship that develops between her husband and his employee. Her "Something Wonderful" is indeed something wonderful.
Also noteworthy are young Adam Rose, who plays the crown prince and heir to the throne, and Laura Solomon as "Tuptim," the King's Burmese concubine whose heart belongs to another. Her bright soprano voice lends itself well to "I Have Dreamed" and "We Kiss In a Shadow."
But as her lover, "Lun Tha," Tom Gately experienced a tough night at the office.
The children are enchanting, the ensemble sounds very nice (except in the Act I Finale, which is horrendous), and the choreography in the funny, yet touching, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" sequence is beautifully done.
In sum, Pasadena's production is an earnest, worthy account of one of the great masterpieces of the American musical stage.