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Review: Zach Theatre’s “The King and I”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

From the moment the curtain rises on the King of Siam’s palace dancers, who perform dutifully in golden outfits, we are confronted with the King’s royal reality. His court members — always glittering, always subserviently lying prostrate — are a sharp contrast to the quick-witted, independent Englishwoman Anna Leonowens, here ultimately to teach his children there is more to the world than Siam.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” directed for Zach Theatre by Abe Reybold, is a playful visual feast that includes colorful costumes designed by Alison Heryer; dance choreography by Greg Zane after Jerome Robbins’ original choreography; a large ensemble, including 22 children spread over two casts; a host of beloved songs; and a touching story that brings cultural differences to the stage.

“The King and I” requires strong dancers, and Zach’s cast delivers. One of the musical’s highlights comes when the royal court puts on an Asian-flavored play version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (translated to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” by the King’s Burmese wife, Tuptim) in an attempt to convince the English the King is no barbarian.

Narrated by Tuptim (Yoonjeong Seong), the play is performed by the ensemble dancers, who leap across the stage and pause for leg balances with flexed feet while donning shimmering headdresses.

The singing is also strong, and set to a live orchestra. As Anna, Jill Blackwood’s renditions of “Getting to Know You” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” are perfectly playful. In “Shall We Dance,” perhaps the musical’s most iconic song, Blackwood and Mel Maghuyop (the King) skip around the stage in an exuberant ballroom fashion while counting, “One two three, one two three” to keep track of their steps. For her portrayal of Tuptim, Seong’s classical vocal training is well suited to the role; she garnered much applause.

Though “The King and I” has a sad ending (the King becomes ill, dying of what we presume is a broken heart), it ends on a hopeful note. We see the succession of the King by his son, Prince Chulalongkorn (played by Texas State student Michael Wheeler), whose first proclamation as king is insisting his subjects adopt the European model of curtsy-and-bow salutations when addressing him.

The days of lying prostrate are over. We know Anna’s work in Siam is finished.

“The King and I” continues through Oct. 18. www.zachtheatre.org