The King and I
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly
Photo by Michael Murphy
In mid-Victorian days, a Siamese king and an English activist-educator came together in a clash of cultures. That pairing inspired memoirs, then a novel, then films and stage musicals. In the national tour of The King and I, now at Pantages Theatre, the clashing continues—in sweet moments of this East-meets-West, old-meets-new story and in unfortunately mismatched acting styles.
Of course the 1951 score, with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, remains charming, lilting and tantalizingly hummable—including the familiar “I Whistle a Happy Tune, “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Getting to Know You.”
Bartlett Sher’s direction, from his Lincoln Center Theater version, is technically gorgeous. Donald Holder’s exquisite lighting creates misty harbors, sunny gardens, and candlelit evenings. Catherine Zuber’s costuming includes lighter-than-air hooped Victorian skirts, traditional chut Thai, plus elaborate masks and headdresses for the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
Portraying Anna, the feminist hired by the king to bring education to and thus modernize his family, Laura Michelle Kelly is pure loveliness, with the ideal voice and physicality for the role. As the unrepentantly chauvinistic but perspicacious king, Jose Llana is a strong presence onstage. But he plays it contemporary and winking, she’s period and in character. Where was the director in this clash of styles?
Somebody persuaded Llana he’d get the laughs if he included eye-rolling and other modern American grimaces of disdain and sarcasm in his performance. Many in the opening-night audience loved it; others found it pandering and distancing.
And what a shame, because Llana has a warm, sturdy, soothing singing voice, an engaging physicality, and dance skills that enable him to launch into out an out-of-time, out-of-step polka until the king eases perfectly into a large loping “Shall We Dance” with Anna and her orbiting skirt (choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on Jerome Robbins’ original, aided by costumer Zuber’s miraculous work).
A secondary couple, adding more social commentary here, are Burmese slave girl Tuptim and the scholar accompanying her, Lun Tha. Played by Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, respectively, they’re nice to look at, but she gets pitchy and neither is particularly interesting in the story’s context.
The plentiful kids are cute, and stageworthy, and their principals seem to relish the time shared with them onstage. The eldest child, son and heir Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan), is cartoonishly prissy at first. But like the best of literary heroes, he opens his eyes and ears in the presence of intelligence, and he learns, later making his first executive decision a modernization of traditional bowing.
Sher resorts to old-school scene changes, drawing a billowy curtain across the stage until the scenery can be reset behind it. In the last two scenes, though, perhaps running out of actors who could change costumes and make it back out front to drag the fabric along, he changes settings within our view. Like the kings, Sher should have looked back at how old-hat his earlier decisions seemed and moved up to modern improvements.
December 15, 2016
Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
15–Jan. 21.6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm &
8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time just under 3 hours, including
intermission. $35-187. (800)
Urinetown: The Musical
Coeurage Theatre Company at Lankershim Arts Center
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Robert Collins, Daniel Bellusci, and Ted Barton
Photo by Nardeep Khurmi
With an overpowering sense of dread about the future of our society overshadowing everything we do these days, there couldn’t be a better time for the indomitable Coeurage Theatre Company to resurrect this boisterously biting 2001 political satire—which, when it debuted in 2001, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and winning for Greg Kotis’s book and Kotis and Mark Hollman’s score. With a malignant and power-hungry magnate in charge who vows to “bring our message of hate to the entire world,” to say Urinetown: The Musical was ahead of its time is almost insulting; right now at this time in our history, it’s sadly right on the money.
With that pesky climate change our own new “leader” insists is fictional having become so harsh and the drought so severe that it’s now illegal for citizens to expel their bodily fluids without queuing up at public utilities where they pay a fee to relive themselves, the prospects for America the Scary is depicted—albeit with outrageously wicked humor—as prophetically dim and dystopian. If the huddled shivering citizens waiting in endless lines and hopping on one leg don’t agree to the cost hikes slapped on them by the greedy Urine Good Company, they are shipped off to Urinetown, a mysterious place where the detainees disappear without a trace.
Kotis and Hollman pay continuous deference to those who came before them, with continuously crafty flashes of homage throughout to such musicals as Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, and Evita. More pointedly, Urinetown is instantly reminiscent of the then-radical agenda lurking just below the brio in those brazen musical classics by Brecht and Weill. The early rendition of the raucous title song could be right out of Happy End, and there’s a lot of Mother Courage in Janna Cardia’s dynamic turn as facilities manager Penelope Pennywise, particularly as she fiercely belts out, “It’s a Privilege to Pee,” her hands placed firmly on her hips as though about to launch into “Alabama Song.”
Just like performing Brecht, Kotis and Hollman don’t make it easy on the performers or the audience, all of whom must link their imaginations together and traverse the fourth wall fearlessly as narrator Officer Lockstock (the deliciously malevolent Ted Barton) educates curious Raggedy Ann clone Little Sally (Nicole Monet) that too much exposition destroys a good show or that sometimes in a musical it’s easier for the audience to pay attention to one big theme rather than lots of little themes.
The performances are eager and meticulously rehearsed, the ensemble gamely honoring Christopher M. Albrecht’s spirited choreography, which fills the stage with energy and a wonderful sense of irony no one who’s ever been part of the creation of a musical could possibly miss. Even one knockout understudy on the night reviewed, the engagingly youthful Ethan Barker, was completely able to meld into the breakneck musical numbers without a hitch. These performers could easily present Urinetown in repertory with The Threepenny Opera without having to alter their delivery, strike Matt Scarpino’s suitably downtrodden set, or change out of the perfectly distressed rags designed by costumer Emily Brown-Kucera.
Daniel Bellusci is a standout as fresh-scrubbed resident hero Bobby Strong, the lowly public latrine attendant who leads a Les Miz–inspired rebellion against Urine Good Company and its owner, mustache-twirling villain Caldwell B. Caldwell (Gary Lamb). Everything good flushes down the toilet for Bobby when he realizes his new love interest, Hope (Ashley Kane), is the daughter of the dastardly Caldwell and has been groomed Trump-style by her father. She’s now recently returned from graduating from the most expensive university in the world where she majored in learning how to manipulate great masses of people.
The direction, by Kari Hayter, is akin to watching a sporting event: without filter, visually nonstop, and willing to go so far over the top the company could make a fortune selling whiplash collars. Brandon Baruch’s lighting is also a major asset, with jumbled strings of household lighting tumbling across the front of the stage, offering glaring footlight illumination for group scenes, interspersed with handheld light bulbs random cast members crouch down to shine in the faces of the principals as they ace Kotis and Hollman’s bittersweet ballads. Keyboardist Peter Shannon does a fine job as the production’s only live musician, a feat made more impressive by the full-blooded, precise musical direction of Gregory Nabours.
As Officer Lockstock reminds us, dreams come true only in happy musicals—oddly a little like life right at the moment even without an accompanying score to lighten the load. This unbelievably inventive and exceptionally unique revival of an exceptionally unique musical provides some much-needed laughs at a point when so many of us need a break from licking our wounds. Without a doubt, however, it will also gradually sink in that there’s a much deeper message here, meant to produce a simmering rage reminiscent of Peter Finch in Network that, hopefully, makes everyone who sees it realize that, like the manipulated residents of Urinetown, the fight against avarice and dominance—and for justice and ethical treatment for all—is just beginning. Pee freely, my friends, it’s our inalienable right.
November 20, 2016
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