Unlike most audience members, reviewers yearn to be surprised. If civilian theatergoers take comfort in the familiar, critics crave an encounter with the unexpected, particularly in a show they have viewed countless times before.
Not that director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge makes novel staging choices for the sake of being different, but nor does she settle for the conventional path of a classic musical. Certainly that was evident in the Hello, Dolly! she created for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre two years ago and perhaps even more so in her startling, creative take on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, continuing through April 6.
The show first opened on Broadway in 1951, starring the elegant Gertrude Lawrence as Anna Leonowens, the British schoolmarm who ventures into the exotic culture of Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860s, to teach the 67 children of the prolific and petulant monarch of that country. Opposite her was a relatively unknown, Russian-born actor named Yul Brynner who made a distinct impression in support as King Mongkut.
Of course, Brynner recognized the role of a lifetime and he played it 4,625 times during his career, warping the show into a starring vehicle for himself, staring down audiences until they were on their feet at the curtain call. Dodge understands that the focal character needs to be Anna and, in collaboration with a remarkably poised and steely Michele Ragusa, she returns the story to Anna, the fish out of water in Siam.
Mind you, Wayne Hu is fine as the king, though with his beefy build, full head of hair and opera-trained singing voice, he is no carbon copy of Brynner. He gets little opportunity to show off his vocal power in song, but he can certainly bellow with the best of them. The two performers confront each other well, as the story requires, though they seem about a quart low in the sexual chemistry department as needed in the latter going.
Dodge imports an entire design team that is new to the Maltz, most notably set designer Narelle Sissons, whose non-naturalistic images of the sea, a model of the boat that brings Anna and her son Louis to Bangkok, and a fish maneuvering the ocean waves make it clear that this will not be a usual King and I. Later abstract scenery of twisted gold rope, gilded animal statues in the playroom-chamber of the man-child king and lyrical, blooming tree limbs — often seen in silhouette — take the place of the expected palace opulence.
Silhouette is an important motif in this production, for Dodge breaks with the East-meets-West choreography in the pivotal second-act Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet. In its place are exquisite Thai shadow puppets, projected from behind a scrim backdrop, devised by Eric Wright of The Puppet Kitchen.
Dodge knows better than to tamper with the song-hit-filled score, but wise enough to hand it over to the accomplished music director, Maltz veteran Helen Gregory. From the opening “Whistle a Happy Tune” to the 11-o’clock boisterous polka, “Shall We Dance,” this is a rich, Asian-tinged score of musical numbers that have become standards over time.
Casting agent Bob Cline get the credit for finding sufficient numbers of Asian performers to lend an authenticity to the production. There are no weak links in the cast, but Kay Trinidad as Tuptim (“My Lord and Master”), the Burmese concubine who defies the king, and Christine Toy Johnson as Lady Thiang (“Something Wonderful”), the polygamist king’s number-one wife, are vocal standouts.
You too may have seen many a King and I production, but I doubt any of them has been as thought-provoking and seductive as this one. This is a production not to be missed.
THE KING AND I, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, April 6. Tickets: From $52. Call: (561) 575-2223.