WOOSTER, Ohio — If Ted Christopher had any trepidation about playing the role made famous by Yul Brynner in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s blockbuster “The King and I,” he showed no signs of it Saturday night when Ohio Light Opera opened its historic 35th season in Freedlander Theatre. The veteran performer, now in his 15th season with the company, knew that comparisons with the legendary Brynner would be unavoidable, but he pulled it off with classic Christopher savvy and aplomb.
Cast opposite OLO newcomer Tanya Roberts, who plays Anna Leonowens, Christopher deftly unveils the King’s complex range of emotions, from rage to compassion and arrogance to self-doubt. The King is an outwardly bold, inwardly frail leader, and Christopher skillfully brings that contradiction to life on stage. He also manages to expose the humor in the main character with his quirky accent and his incomplete thought process, which often causes him to finishes sentences with “etc., etc. etc.”
Roberts appears at ease in her OLO debut, interacting comfortably with the King’s many wives as well as the children she was summoned to teach. She also develops a chemistry with Christopher that blossoms as the production unfolds. While the King demonstrates little respect for societal status of women, it becomes increasingly clear that he is smitten with Anna and that she ultimately gains the upper hand in the relationship.
As the production climaxes, the King is near death and ready to cede leadership to his son, Prince Chulalongkorn. Fortunately, the Prince appears to have learned lessons that his father did not, particularly in regard to slavery and subservience, signaling the promise of better days ahead for the country of Siam.
In addition to a compelling storyline, “The King and I” features a delightful score with a number of recognizable songs, beginning with a rousing overture, courtesy of J. Lynn Thompson and the Ohio Light Opera Orchestra. Two of the more popular songs come in the first act when Anna and her son, Louis, sing “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” and when Anna and the children sing “Getting to Know You.” The children’s ensemble is made up of nine young singers, including Christopher’s daughters, Maddie (8) and Anna (4). Other young performers include the Prince, played charmingly by Gerard Berroteran, and Anna’s son, Louis Leonowens, played convincingly by Elizabeth Perkins.
Also noteworthy are the voices of soprano Elise Kennedy as the Burmese slave, Tuptim, and mezzo-soprano Alexa Devlin as the King’s chief wife, Lady Thiang.
Carol Hageman’s clever choreography is evident throughout, particularly in a stage-sweeping number with Anna and the King to the tune of “Shall We Dance?” and the impressive performance by Wendy Muir as the principal dancer, Eliza.
As always, Amber Marisa Cook’s costumes are stunning, and C. Murdock Lucas’s sets are enchanting, all of which make OLO’s production of “the King and I” a “can’t-miss” entertainment option for the entire family this summer.
If you missed Saturday night’s opening performance, don’t worry, the company will present “The King and I” 11 more times this season, all the way up to the final week on Aug. 8. For additional information, or to order tickets, call 330-263-2345 or visit ohiolightopera.org.
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