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Royal Treatment for 'King'

The Famed Rodgers and Hammerstein Musical Shimmers in a Detailed Performance by Actors at the Peak of Their Skills

May 18, 1999|Theater Review ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If ever there were a musical that cannot be done by just anybody, it is Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I." Parents no doubt had a rude reminder of this recently in the abysmal animated film from Castle Rock and Warner Bros.

At Plummer Auditorium, the Fullerton Civic Light Opera is offering a "King and I" put on by people who know the work upside down and backward, plus a whole generation younger than Yul Brynner and Julie Andrews.

This marks the third Fullerton staging by director Jan Duncan, the second appearance here by Karen Forest as Anna, and the umpteenth time Clynell Jackson III has played the King.

The experience shows.

With small adjustments, this version makes just about an ideal "King and I" for those who want to experience this shimmering jewel of Broadway theater for the first time, or for those who want to hear the work again with fresh ears. Plummer has rarely been a happier, more magical place to be.

Of course, it probably was 1984 when Duncan, Forest and Jackson last united here. As an actor if not a singer, Forest feels most at home with Anna in the early scenes as the strict schoolmarm, operating by a rigid set of British rules out of step with those of the Siamese court to which she is assigned as a teacher. There's more than a hint of the stuffy side of Julie Andrews in Forest, and it helps the character, though it gives her voice a harsh tone that recalls opera singers trying to warble pop tunes.

It's the only unpleasant thing in this version, but Forest eventually loosens up with romantic fervor in Act 2's reprise of "Hello Young Lovers" and "Shall We Dance?" This balances the chemistry onstage with Jackson, who operates at the peak of his powers from word one. Though Lou Diamond Phillips garnered deserved acclaim for his King a few years back, Jackson is every bit Phillips' equal, with a far stronger voice.

Blending gracefully this potentate's regal ego with his increasing bewilderment at the changes around him symbolized in Anna, Jackson makes a song like "A Puzzlement" exactly as Rodgers and Hammerstein intended the lyrical extension of character. This is one actor playing the King whom you can picture playing Othello, which Jackson has done.

Director Duncan pays attention to the large and small details, from an exquisite version of young slave Tuptim's (Emy Baysic) court performance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"--still one of the most audacious strokes in any American musical--to Sha Newman's choreography, based on Jerome Robbins' original work. And there are charming little scenes usually cut from film versions, such as the moment that the King's young Prince (Luis Avila) and Anna's son Louis (Christopher Winsor) realize adults don't know it all.

*

Both kids and adults are in superb voice, including the renegade pair of lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, sung by Baysic and Enrique Acevedo, and Karen Lew's gentle Lady Thiang. Conductor Todd Helms' orchestra has rarely sounded better, while Sharell Martin's costumes display a cornucopia of hoop skirts (highlighted by a glimmering gold number worn by Anna at the Act 2 ball).

By the end, you wish that local civic light opera companies were always this good, and that something this good could last more than three weekends.

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* "The King and I," Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturday and May 30, 2 p.m.; Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends May 30. $14-$35. (714) 879-1732. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Clynell Jackson III: The King

Karen Forest: Anna

Karen Lew: Lady Thiang

Emy Baysic: Tuptim

Luis Avila: Prince Chulalongkorn

Enrique Acevedo: Lun Tha

Christopher Winsor: Louis

Joe Kaye: The Kralahome

Gordon Haag: Sir Edward Ramsay

James Robuck: Capt. Orton

A Fullerton Civic Light Opera production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Director: Jan Duncan. Choreography: Sha Newman. Conductor: Todd Helm. Musical director: Grant Rohr. Set: Mark Klopfenstein. Lights: Donna Ruzika. Costumes: Sharell Martin. Stage manager: Donna R. Parsons.

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