THEATER REVIEW: “The King And I”

What do you get when you put a headstrong British governess and the King of Siam – used to having not only a harem, but his own way – in one room?

You get a lot of verbal fireworks, and if you’re talking about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King And I,” you also get a riveting story and lots of wonderful melodies.

Welk Theatre San Diego is staging the latest incarnation of the beloved 1951 musical with colorful costumes, charming dances and fine singing actors to bring this famous based-on-history story to life.

You remember the plot: in the mid-19th century, the King wanted to modernize his country, and thought the best place to start would be with the children. So he imports the British Anna Leonowens (Victoria Strong) to teach them English as well as history and the usual subjects.

They start off on the wrong foot, when Anna demands the house separate from the palace that she was promised as living quarters for her and her young son Louis (Matthew Mohler). The King says he doesn’t remember that promise and she will live on the palace grounds.

It gets worse. Before you can say Jack Robinson, Anna will start championing women’s rights, including a woman’s right to make her own decision whom to marry. She even questions the King’s demand that her head always be lower than his.

But annoying as she can be, the King needs her. Some thoughtless Englishman has called the King (Richard Bermudez) a barbarian, and he needs her help in proving that wrong.

At Welk, the emphasis is on singing actors, colorful costumes and charming dances. Strong’s Anna is a standout, her strong, supple, expressive voice perfectly portraying Anna’s intent.

Bermudez, remembered for his fine portrayal of Marius in Moonlight Productions’ “Les Misérables,” moves and sounds just right and is a perfect foil for Anna. He’s every bit as strong-willed – and old-fashioned and imperious to boot – but with an underlying insecurity about what he regards as his need to modernize his country.

Also excellent are Michaelia Leigh and Austin Oducayen as young Burmese lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, threatened with permanent separation when Tuptim is sent to the King as a gift from Burma. Well matched dramatically, somewhat less so vocally, they make a most attractive singing and acting unit.

Jalin Hsu is a find as Lady Thiang, with a beautiful soprano voice and strong dramatic chops as well.

Kudos to Janet Pitcher’s costume design, Joanna Tsang’s choreography, Jennifer Edwards’ lighting and Patrick Hoyny’s sound design, all of which are top notch. Doug Davis provides a versatile background for the colorful goings-on.

The emphasis on actors and costumes apparently led to a reduction in the usual size of the orchestra for this show. Music director Justin Gray does what he can with the anemic but talented four-member combo.

“The King And I” has everything. Not only captivating characters and great songs, but lots of kids (the King’s) and a charming ballet called “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas,” a Siamese version of the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic.

That old dessert ad says it better than anything: Nobody doesn’t like “The King And I.” Especially this one.

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“The King And I” plays through April 5 at Welk Theatre San Diego, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido.

Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 8 pm.

Tickets: (888) 802-7469 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.