The 2013 summer season at Sacramento’s Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion continues with The King And I, Rogers and Hammerstein’s fifth collaboration, which premiered in 1951. The show was based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, and was proposed as a musical vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, a veteran stage actress near the end of her career. Both Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein were reluctant to take it on, seeing little promise from the book. However, urged on by their wives, they relented, and made several adaptations to make the story suitable for their style, including the addition of a true romance between two secondary characters, since Anna and the King could not very well be a couple in love. (After all, he already had a couple dozen devoted wives, and a country to run…)
Casting for the “supporting role” of the king began with Rex Harrison, who had played the part in an earlier film version of the story, but he was unavailable. Enter 30-year-old Russian-American actor Yul Brynner, who won the audition, reluctantly shaved his head, and created the iconic part he was known for, and frequently returned to, for the rest of his life. Gertrude Lawrence died after just over a year, and Brynner became the star opposite several Anna’s over his career, winning both a Tony Award and later an Oscar for the film adaptation.
The Music Circus has brought The King and I to its familiar theater-in-the-round 13 times, all the way back to 1956, and most recently in 2005. Christiane Noll, an award winning Broadway and opera star, is playing Anna, a part she sang in a little remembered 1999 animated version. (Miranda Richardson voiced the speaking parts while Noll did the singing, echoing the 1956 film, when Deborah Kerr’s Anna was sung by an overdubbed Marni Nixon, who made a career of singing for other actresses.) American born Noll is terrific in the part of the proper, yet feisty Englishwoman who comes to Siam as a teacher, scientist, and diplomat for the King eager to bring his country into the modern world. Her stellar voice delivers on the iconic tunes "Getting To Know You" and "Hello Young Lovers."
Taking on the role of the King of Siam is Paul Nakauchi, who is no stranger to the part. He actually appeared with Yul Brynner early in his career as an ensemble player in a production of The King and I, and has played the King himself in several other productions. But playing a part that another actor has owned is a big challenge. Any good singer and actor can play Curly from Oklahoma!, but parts like Harold Hill from The Music Man, owned by Robert Preston, and the King of Siam, owned by Yul Brynner, is a huge challenge – you either have to do your best to imitate the actor, or take the part in a totally different direction. Nakauchi did it his own way as much as possible – not being totally bald, for one, helped set him apart. And he was quite effective, and played a more mature, gruff king, with enough humor to keep the audience laughing at every “etcetera” he uttered. To fully enjoy his performance you had to forget Brynner and look at the role with new eyes.
And though I did miss Yul Brynner, I enjoyed the stage production much more than the film, which I recently watched as well. The movie is somewhat dated, and the singing often comes off as corny. In the supporting cast, Rita Moreno as the “gift wife” Tuptim, is practically wasted – she is barely recognizable made up to look Asian, and like Kerr, her singing is overdubbed. Diane Phelan as Tuptim in this production did an outstanding job singing and playing the Burmese “Juliet” in love with her “Romeo”, well played by Telly Leung. Also missing from the film are some enjoyable songs, like Anna’s "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You," which features some clever couplets by Hammerstein - rhyming “polygamy” and “bigamy” with “That clearly makes a prig ‘o me”; and “In your pursuit of pleasure, you, Have mistresses who treasure you” – “pleasure-you” and “treasure-you” being the rhyming phrases.
Other outstanding supporting performances in the Music Circus production included Tami Swartz as the head wife, Lady Thiang, who is both moving and joyful, as she plays the important role of helping Anna accept the King for who he is. The two boys, Anna’s son Louis, played by Carter Thomas, and the King’s oldest, Prince Chulalongkorn played by Andrew Apy, both do a great job in their roles. And the highlight of Act 2, which also comes off much better on stage, is the ballet – The Small House Of Uncle Thomas, Tuptim’s interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The music is eccentric and fun, the costumes and effects bright and colorful, and the singing and dancing by the Royal Dancers brings this little play-within-a-play to life.
The closing scene (spoiler alert – the King dies at the end) is moving and sad, and heartwarming when Prince Chulalongkorn grows into his role as the new King. This is one advantage Paul Nakauchi has over Yul Brynner. I never believed Byrnner’s King could actually be dying, apparently despondent over his lack of moral certitude in his treatment of his people (Tuptim in particular), and Anna’s scolding of him. I did not buy that the young confident King of Yul Brynner could be so torn, but Kakauchi’s King is a much more tortured and troubled soul, and it is a little easier to believe his inner conflicts could lead to his depression and death.
The Music Circus crowd on opening night was very appreciative of director Stafford Arima’s production, giving a rousing ovation for the cast, and standing for Noll and Nakauchi as they took their bows. The King and I runs at the Wells Fargo Pavilion Music Circus through August 11th. For tickets and information see www.CaliforniaMusicalTheatre.com.
Ken Kiunke 8/8/2013 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Christiane Noll as Anna and Paul Nakauchi as the King
When I was in fourth grade, a TV show debuted that instantly became my favorite. Imagine a musical family where everyone was part of a rock band, they lived in a suburban house and traveled to gigs in a psychedelic bus. I was hooked, and never missed a Partridge Family episode. Keith was cool, but he was really there for the girls. I was just getting old enough to think Laurie was amazing, but I really identified with Danny; he was about my age and shared my sarcastic sense of humor. Chris and Tracy were...Chris and Tracy. But that family had the coolest mom ever on TV. Shirley Partridge, as played by Shirley Jones, was a smart, funny, loving mom, who joined in her kids’ dream of becoming a rock group, and then made it happen! She was there to raise her kids as a single parent, but she also became one of them, even playing second fiddle to her son, the acknowledged group leader and songwriter. Only later did I come to know Shirley Jones as a romantic leading lady herself. I came to appreciate her beauty and voice in Oklahoma!, Carousel, and of course, as Marian the Librarian in the 1962 film The Music Man.
So it was much to my delight that the California Musical Theater brought Shirley Jones back to The Music Man, not as Marian, but as her mother, the widow Paroo. As a bonus, her son, Patrick Cassidy (David’s kid brother) is playing the lead role of Professor Harold Hill. The show is at The Music Circus at the Wells Fargo Pavilion in downtown Sacramento, a unique theater experience, presented “in the round”, with a circular stage, orchestra pit on one side, and four main aisles that the performers use to enter and exit the stage, often performing from the aisles amid the audience. With just over 2000 seats surrounding the stage, there is not a bad seat in the house.
The Music Man originally opened on Broadway in 1957, winning several Tony awards, including Best Musical. With music and lyrics written by Meredith Willson, it is probably the best non-Rogers and Hammerstein musical of the mid 20th Century. It tells the story of a shifty salesman coming to the small Iowa town of River City, convincing everyone that the town needs a boys marching band, and selling them instruments, uniforms, and instruction books. His goal is to have a quick fling, collect his cash, and get out of town before anyone realizes he doesn't know the first thing about music. But then boy meets girl, girl rejects boy at first...and, well, you know the rest.
Robert Preston played Professor Harold Hill in both the original play and in the 1962 movie. Preston wasn’t a great singer, but Willson felt he could handle such fast songs as Ya Got Trouble, and act the charming con man. He made the role his own, and it became his signature part and personality; it seemed that all his other parts from then on had a little of Professor Hill in them. Though no one can ever live up to Robert Preston's Harold Hill, Patrick Cassidy does an admirable interpretation. Like Preston, he is not a great singer, but he can more than handle the songs of the Music Man, and plays a convincing sweet talking con man. Only in the song Till There Was You might you wish for a stronger leading man voice. But Cassidy does a great job with songs like the iconic Seventy-Six Trombones and Gary Indiana, while his smooth acting and sly facial expressions keep you half for him and half against him the whole time.
Brandi Burkhardt plays the conflicted Marian Paroo, who initially distrusts Hill, but then comes over to him in the end when she sees the good in what he has brought to her town and family. She has a wonderful voice, which she shows off in Goodnight My Someone, Till There Was You and many other songs. It must be a bit intimidating to play Marian while Shirley Jones is on stage with you, but Burkhardt shines, and there are some very nice moments when they get to sing together. And of course Jones plays the supporting part of Marian’s mother, and though she doesn't have a lot of singing parts, she makes the most of them. She still has a nice voice, and is always a radiant presence when on stage, whether singing, reacting, or even just sitting with the crowd.
I am a sucker for a good barbershop quartet, and the inclusion of the quartet in The Music Man is what lifts it from a good musical to a great one. One of the most sublime moments in all of musical theater is when the quartet sings Lida Rose joined by Marian singing Will I Ever Tell You. The two songs blend together beautifully, and Burkhardt’s voice floats effortlessly above the sweet harmonies of the quartet (J.D. Daw, Jack Doyle, Michael Dotson and Joseph Torello.) Like a Greek chorus, the quartet floats in an out of the show throughout, and are countered by the Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little ladies playing the busybody gossips of the town.
Carter Thomas plays ten-year-old Winthrop Paroo, Marian’s lisping little brother, and surprises everyone with such a great voice from such a young performer. His biography shows, however, that he is stage veteran, and it is no surprise based on his performance. Michael McGurk as Tommy and Bradley Benjamin as Zaneeta (Ye Gods!) lead the young cast, whose dancing is a highlight of the ensemble scenes, and serve as the youthful romantic counterpoint to Harold and Marian. Marcellus, the only one who knows Hill’s real identity, is played by a fun Jason Graae, though he looks and sounds nothing like Buddy Hackett, who played the part in the film. His character leads the ensemble in the wacky and wild Shipoopi opening act 2. And Kevin Cooney keeps the laughs going as the tongue-tied mayor who is always after Professor Hill.
The show drew a standing ovation as soon as Shirley Jones took her bows. And maybe it was just opening night, or maybe they will do this for every show, but Jones followed the ovations with a story of when she was filming the movie and found she was pregnant with Patrick. It was kept a secret at the time, but during her embrace with Preston on the footbridge, the baby kicked and Preston felt it right in the gut. Cassidy then shared that when they later met, Preston backed off saying they had met once before. Shirley and Patrick then sang Till There Was You for a sweet ending to a wonderful show.
The Music Man runs at the Wells Fargo Pavilion music Circus through August 5th. For tickets and information see www.CaliforniaMusicalTheatre.com.
Ken Kiunke 8/1/2012 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Shirley Jones, Brandi Burkhardt, and Patrick Cassidy
The California Musical Theater is presenting Disney's The Little Mermaid at the Music Circus as part of the 2012 Summer Season, and marks the west coast premier of this Broadway hit musical. The Little Mermaid is based, of course, on the animated feature film. Like the stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, a lot of new songs have been added to make it a full fledged musical production, rather than the original story with five or six great songs. While still appealing to kids who loved the original, these musical stage versions are really designed to appeal to adult theater goers, with minimal dialog and new musical numbers, and added plot points to fit the stage presentation.
The Music Circus, presented at the Wells Fargo Pavilion in downtown Sacramento, is a unique theater experience, presented “in the round”, with a circular stage, orchestra pit on one side, and four main aisles that the performers use to enter and exit the stage, often performing from the aisles amid the audience. With just over 2000 seats, all are fairly close to the stage, and at least some of the action. The set pieces are minimal, with some scenery hanging from the rafters, and lighting used to create the mood of the scene. In the Little Mermaid, performers dressed like water often come in carrying various sea creatures to add to the underwater effect, while Ariel and the “merfolk” undulate on stage to show you they are not just standing there, they are swimming about.
The story is a very familiar tale – young girl longs to leave her home for new adventures, falls for someone her family doesn't approve of, and he turns out to be a prince; meanwhile, evil characters scheme against them, loving friends try to help, and miscommunication gets in the way. And finally (unless it is Romeo and Juliet) evil is vanquished and true love wins out for a happy ending. Make the characters mermaids, sailors, crabs, seagulls, and an evil octopus, and you've got the Little Mermaid! Of course in a musical, the story is just a vehicle for the music, and the songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, from the original Disney film, and newer songs for the stage by Menken and Glenn Slater, are terrific. The calypso inspired songs Under The Sea and Kiss The Girl, along with Part Of Your World, became the best known songs from the film, and remain as highlights in the stage musical. But the new songs stand up as well, especially the funny word play of Positoovity and the stunning four part If Only, at the dramatic climax of the show.
The performers are equally important to the success of a show, and the Music Circus cast is great. Ariel is played by Jessica Grové, who has the looks and great voice to carry the lead role of the girl trying to break free. She sparkles as she explores her new world, and even her jealous sisters can't really dislike her. Eric Kunze is the perfect prince charming, with a nice booming tenor, equally at home sailing with his crew, and wooing his girl. Vicki Lewis is probably the best known of the cast, with many TV, movie and stage roles to her credit. Though somewhat buried in her Ursula, the evil octopus costume, she belts out her songs and brings just the right amount of menace and humor to the role. Merwin Foard (what a great name!) brings the gravitas of King Triton with his deep voice and regal looks.
Some of the supporting cast also stood out for the performances. Jack Doyle, as Scuttle the seagull, has a voice like Nathan Lane and brings a lot of the humor to the show, especially when he and his seagull buddies do the song and dance number Positoovity that opens the second act. Scott Leiendecker and Ben Roseberry, as Ursula's minions Flotsam and Jetsam, have some great musical moments when they harmonize in Daddy's Little Angel and Sweet Child. Another highlight of the first act is when the six “Mersisters” (mermaid sisters) and Flounder, played by Henry Hodges, sing She’s In Love, another of the great songs added for the stage musical. Hodges plays the hapless best friend fish with youthful sweetness, hinting of his love for Ariel, but never getting in the way of her happiness. Using a skateboard for him to swim in and out is a great concept, especially for the “in the round” stage setting. And Eric Gunhus, as Chef Louis, leads a hilarious cooking scene in the song Les Poissons.
Holding the whole show together is the character Sebastian the crab, played by Kevin Smith Kirkwood. At the beginning, Sebastian is a comic character, put upon by King Triton and his daughters as he tries to teach them to sing, and is blamed when things go wrong. But by the end of the first act, Sebastian tries to convince Ariel that life in the sea is good, and leads the company in the colorful and uplifting Under The Sea. Kirkwood’s voice shines brightly for the first time, and continues when he sings Kiss The Girl. The show hits its peak when Sebastian joins Ariel, Eric and King Triton in If Only, blending their voices in a moving song about the regrets they all have. Kirkwood is able to move from animated comedian, to calypso singer and dancer, to moving song stylist with ease, and does it all with big red claws for hands.
The show is well paced and full of great music and clever dialog (as when Eric tries to guess Ariel’s name.) It is a nice evening for young and old alike, though not necessarily suitable for young kids, and some older ones, who may get restless with too many singing and dancing numbers. Director Glenn Casale has done dozens of shows on Broadway and worldwide, including the Little Mermaid and other Disney shows, and he is the Artistic Director for California Musical Theater. He has done a great job adapting this show to the Theater in the Round format, so much that it is hard to imagine it being as good in a traditional theater. The music, provided by conductor Craig Barna and a 15 piece orchestra, sounds like a much larger ensemble, and is always in sync without overwhelming the singers. Disney’s The Little Mermaid runs at the Wells Fargo Pavilion music Circus through July 22.
For tickets and information see www.CaliforniaMusicalTheatre.com.
Ken Kiunke 7/11/2012 Originally published in the Gold Country Times. Reprintable with attribution to the Gold Country Times and Ken Kiunke
Vicki Lewis as Ursulla and Jessica Grove as Ariel