Chief among many surprises in Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse's current production of The King & I is the re-discovery of just how funny the show is. For many, myself included, the news of another Rodgers & Hammerstein revival is enough to fill you with trepidation; must we sit through one of their timeless extravaganzas yet again? But it's easy to forget that this theatrical duo is legendary for good reason. Beyond their undeniable musical talents, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote strong, well-constructed shows and empathetic characters, and their productions always feature an intriguing, nearly treacherous dark side; Rodgers & Hammerstein felt no compunction about casually killing off major characters. (Every time I see The Sound of Music I have to remind myself: Oh, right. There are Nazis in this.) And although I'd be content to never see South Pacific again, a recent, invigorating production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's State Fair at Assumption High School was a welcome reminder of the duo's gifts, and Circa '21's The King & I is fantastically fine, engaging and memorable and, to a quite unexpected degree, hilarious.
Though The King & I is one of Rodgers & Hammerstein's more visually arresting works (Noel Rennerfeldt's stage design here is suitably grand), and its all-too-hummable score one of their more clever ones, any production of the show lives and dies on its central casting of Anna and The King. For a while, Kimberly Kurtenbach's elocution and bearing might fool you into thinking she's channeling Julie Andrews, but it quickly becomes clear that she's doing something far more subversive - she's channeling Emma Thompson. As Anna, Kurtenbach is so sharp and quick that the audience barely has time to catch her more inspired line readings, and although she's in wonderful voice, the phrasing of her lyrics is an actor's phrasing; she never steps outside the character for the sake of a vocal effect. It's an intelligent, nuanced performance with true dramatic heft - she hits amazing low tones when fighting for Tuptim's life - and Kurtenbach, looking radiant with little overt makeup, emerges as the heart of this King & I.
If Philip Peterson's King emerges as the lesser of the show's equals, that's barely his fault; the notorious Yul Brynner inflections are so familiar that even grade-schoolers can do a pretty reasonable approximation of him. (Let's face it: Brynner was The King of Siam in every role he played. ) But the speed and vibrancy with which Peterson delivers his punch lines is impressive, and the audience is alive to his presence; Peterson gets his laughs, and those laughs beget applause. Peterson, who is blessed with a rich, powerful baritone, plays beautifully opposite Kurtenbach; Act I's curtain-closer, with Anna and The King dueling for moral superiority, is as enjoyable a battle of the sexes as musical theatre has yet devised, and their "Shall We Dance?" duet is joyous enough to give you the chills.
Though The King & I's supporting characters often border on the peripheral, many performers make first-rate impressions here: Dera Lee, in superb voice as Lady Thiang (and she delivers the line "Here ... is Burma ... " with priceless disdain); John F. Kassimatis, boasting a divine tenor, and the bewitchingly pretty, naturalistic Jenny Stodd, who salvage Rodgers & Hammerstein's standard ingénue subplot through sheer charisma; Tom Walljasper, so tricky a comedian that he can wring two laughs out of a line designed for one; and Nicole Polzella, whose physical grace in the famed Uncle Tom's Cabin ballet is exhilarating. (As choreographed by Andrea Moore, and showcasing some of costumer Greg Hiatt's most imaginative designs, this sequence stands as this King & I's most transcendent one.)
Director Dimitri Toscas guides his actors skillfully, and while I question some of his choices (I wasn't quite prepared for The King's line "Slavery very bad thing" followed by the jokey appearance of the two - the only two - African Americans in the ensemble) and thought Nick McCord's lighting design too often bathed the cast in an unflattering hot pink, Circa '21's The King & I is quick-witted, oftentimes inspired entertainment, a Rodgers & Hammerstein classic you'd be hard-pressed to nap through.