The Muny has opened its 88th season with a colorful production of a venerable favorite. Perhaps it's no surprise that this is the eleventh staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I in Forest Park in 51 years. Despite (or perhaps because of) the show's ambitious themes slavery, tyranny, the challenges of leadership in a changing world this perennial crowd pleaser remains thought-provoking and immediate. Under the assured baton of Kevin Farrell, Richard Rodgers' soaring music especially in songs like "Something Wonderful" and "I Have Dreamed" reaches to the night sky in aching splendor.
The evening gets off to a confusing start. Someone at the Muny apparently misread the script, which clearly states that Scene One is set on the deck of a moving ship as it approaches Bangkok in the early 1860s. Here we get a dock rather than a deck, which is not the same thing at all. Luggage is suspended in limbo, and lines like "If you wish to stay on my ship..." don't make sense.
But as soon as the plot moves to the palace and the King of Siam makes his autocratic appearance, there's no time to worry about cost cutting; the eye goes straight to Francis Jue. He's not physically imposing; he doesn't overwhelm the role. Jue has to settle for inhabiting the character. The result is a kinetic portrayal. Surely if you shook this man's hand you'd get an electric shock; he's that charged. Rather like a cobra, you never know if this hissing King is going to strike; there's something of the bullwhip in his lithe movements. At the climactic moment of Act Two, when the King is unable to swing a bullwhip, the metaphor is complete: Visually we see that his own emerging conscience has stripped him of his might.
What's curious about this performance-in-the-making is that Jue is most effective when he is most regally alone, as he stands on his royal plinth proudly observing his family during the "March of the Siamese Children" or as he slams his way through the maze-like lyrics of "A Puzzlement." But it's when the King is confronting his new nemesis, the determined British schoolteacher he has imported from England, that there's still work to be done.
Leslie Denniston, who has been the Muny's resident Mrs. Anna for the past decade, delivers an ingratiating performance. But the question to ask is this: Should Mrs. Anna be ingratiating? Certainly that's one way to portray her. But if you think The King and I concerns a clash of cultures, as personified by two equally stubborn people, then you might prefer a little more brittleness in Mrs. Anna. If the King has to evolve to understanding, don't we need to see her evolve too? Is it enough merely to be likable?
There are so many lovely elements in this Muny production costumes that captivate the eye, a brilliant re-creation of the astonishing Jerome Robbins ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas" but what was still missing on opening night was the essential, unlikely romance between Anna and the King, the unspoken love that finally erupts in the crescendo of the most famous polka in the American musical theater, "Shall We Dance?" As Jue and Denniston swirled about the stage, the audience began to applaud. But it was an empty, obligatory applause, and it soon died out, simply because "Shall We Dance?" is not an end in itself, it's the payoff for all that's gone before. But if not much has gone before, if there has not been an emotional connection between these two, then all we get is a polka: charming, but not cathartic.
This 55-year-old tale about the breakdown of age-old traditions has had an enduring influence on the American musical. (When, for instance, Jerome Robbins staged the opening "Tradition" number in Fiddler on the Roof, be assured that The King and I was on his mind.) But despite the evening's inherent theatricality and power, at a three-hour running length this production is asking a lot of viewers, especially those who bring children. (Many dads exited the theater carrying sleeping kids.) Why didn't the Muny follow that great Buddhist principle that "less is more" and judiciously trim an ineffectual reprise here, a redundant reprise there? It's a puzzlement.