Monday, November 29, 2004

Tina Shelton, as Anna, is surrounded by the children of the king in Army Community Theatre's "The King & I."

Cast does justice to
Broadway favorite

There are good reasons why Broadway classics such as "The King & I" continue to be restaged year after year nationwide while the earnest efforts of most local playwrights play once, maybe twice, then are filed and forgotten. Rodgers and Hammerstein's ever-popular musical take on the real-life adventures of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens in 19th-century Thailand, for instance, combines strong characters, catchy melodies, memorable lyrics and a compelling story in ways that engage the heart and mind.

"The King & I": Presented by Army Community Theatre at Richardson Theatre, Fort Shafter, at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Saturday. Tickets are $17 and $14 general, $10 and $8 for children. Call 438-4480.

"The King & I" is a marvelous piece of American musical theater, and Army Community Theatre director/choreographer Jim Hutchison and his talented cast do justice to it with ACT's latest revival.

Tina Shelton looks and sounds the part of the prim but steely widowed teacher who travels to Bangkok to become governess and teacher to the king's children and wives.

Ray Bumatai is taking on a much more difficult task in playing the role that was defined for all time by Yul Brynner on Broadway and in the Academy Award-winning film, but he succeeds in making the character his own. Although he spoke at times with a pidgin inflection in the first few scenes, Bumatai was thoroughly likable as a troubled monarch trying to deal with change. Other characters speak of the king's weaknesses, but Bumatai's performance shows a man shrewder and more cunning than he appears.

Bumatai embraces the role musically with his first big number, "A Puzzlement," just as Shelton does with "Hello Young Lovers." Both songs play to their strengths while also revealing character details that become important as the story develops.

The two stars' best number together, "Shall We Dance," succeeds as much on their abilities as actors as it does on their voices or on Hutchison's feel for staging and choreography.

Bumatai's body language and vocal delivery show us that the king wants Anna to dance with him as she did with her English ex-boyfriend earlier that evening. Shelton's body language and vocal delivery suggest with equal effectiveness Anna's hesitance to comply.

Good theater shows rather than tells, and the scene becomes better than "good" as Bumatai and Shelton play out the characters' shared sense of amazement and wary acceptance of the new intimacy developing between them. The expansive waltz around the library following their first tentative steps together becomes an expansive and joyous release.

Sherry Chock Wong brings a strong, clear voice and fragile beauty to the role of Tuptim, and her rendition of "My Lord and Master" is breathtaking in its delicacy and poignancy. Chock's final scene displays her dramatic talent.

Chock's portrayal is nicely balanced by Cheryl Toma Sanders as Lady Thiang. Everyone with a heart will find themselves getting misty -- if not actually in tears -- by the time Sanders finishes singing "Something Wonderful."

Elitei Tatafu Jr. (Lun Tha) is well cast as Tuptim's Burmese lover. He and Chock make their two duets emotional highlights as well.

John Tolentino is appropriately cold and distant as the powerful Kralahome, and Avamua de Wattville de Berkheim exudes a subtle aura of menace and racial arrogance as the visiting English diplomat who is one of Anna's ex-beaus.

Elsewhere in the production, Hutchison does an effective job staging and choreographing the challenging "Small House of Uncle Thomas," Tom Giza (set design) provides a solid-looking royal library and a beautiful palace garden, and John Parkinson (lighting) adds to the dramatic impact of a romantic rendezvous.

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