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vancouverplays review


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Music by Richard Rodgers
Book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Gateway Theatre, Richmond
Dec. 5-31
$49/$30 or 604-270-1812

The King and I is a don’t-miss-it triumph.

Suffused with tenderness, blessed with restraint and dappled with good humour throughout, this delightful rendering of a deeply intelligent musical is an enormous boost for the credibility of the Gateway Theatre complex on the other side of the north/south divide of the Fraser River, a divide that mirrors the English/Asian divide of the play.

Highlights include a charming and sophisticated Vancouver stage debut from new Gateway artistic director Jovanni Sy, who plays the king of Siam, and an inspired rendering of the English schoolteacher Anna by the smartly-cast Barbara Tomasic. When they finally dance, it is joyous.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ground-breaking assertion of liberal values in post-war America is now deeply associated with Yul Brynner, who played King Mongut 4,625 times before he died in 1985. Whereas Brynner’s depiction was big, brash, bombastic and—let’s face it—bordering on one-note, Sy is much more complex and closer to the character originally intended.

In his opening number, when the omnipotent king confides directly to the audience that he is uncertain about many things, Sy’s confession of puzzlement is heartfelt, even sublime. We empathize.

Having appeared in four previous productions of this play, not always as the king, Sy is clearly comfortable with this material to such a degree that he has refined countless nuances and expressions. When the King challenges the schoolteacher to always keep her head lower than his, to the extent that he crawls on the floor to make her bow and scrape before him, the happy grin of amusement on his face makes us grin with him.

The costumes and set more than suffice—and that’s no small feat. Ever since the glory days of Jeff Hyslop and Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Arts Club has ruled the roost when it comes to musicals in Vancouver. The Gateway has now fired an inspired and courageous shot across the bow.

But don’t expect the athleticism of Jerome Robbins’ choreography in West Side Story. Director Christopher McGregor has correctly gauged the limits of more than 40 actors and singers, including more than a dozen youngsters, successfully concentrating instead on a lengthy play-within-a-play sequence for the show’s delightful foray into spectacle and dance.

The King and I is not a stop-‘n’-go musical. The score is like a character that underlies much of the action. After microphone levels were quickly adjusted on opening night, the orchestra danced with the cast with suitable aplomb. Full marks must be given for the musicians’ spirited endurance given that, in terms of numbers, the orchestra was a tad thin on the ground.

Don’t expect to see a thin recreation of Julie Andrews as an archetypal English governess type, that sort of oppressively cheerful, upright character so often played by Emma Thompson. Tomasic not only looks like a stout-hearted Englishwoman from the era of Abe Lincoln, she manages to be admirable and likeable. As one of those discriminating singers who enunciates every word with precision and tact, she delivers the show’s two most well-known songs, ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ and ‘Getting to Know You,’ with sincerity, skill and grace.

 “Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you. Getting to hope you like me.” This is the heart of The King and I, a musical about resolving extreme differences, a musical about overcoming rancour with reconciliation, a musical about tolerance and interracial respect. One day after Nelson Mandela died, it was precisely my cup of tea.

by Paul Durras