June 9, 2006
Visiting the King and Kansas
By David Ollington
Richard Rodgers, composer, and Oscar Hammerstein II, lyricist, dominated the Great White Way in the mid-20th century. In 1951, after having scored Broadway hits with Oklahoma! (1943) and South Pacific (1949), they opened The King and I, an American classic.
Based on the film Anna and the King of Siam (1946) derived from the autobiographical work of Anna Leonowens, The King and I tells the story of a British governess hired to teach the children of the King of Siam in the early 1860s. On June 2, the Theatre at Shawnee Mission Park opened their 2006 summer season with the show.
For most of the plot, Anna (Bethany Hohly) expresses shock and outrage at the unchecked power of the Siamese monarch (Craig Boyd). The king’s subjects prostrate themselves in supplication. Polygamy marks a royal way of life. He barks orders and gets his way. “You’re spoiled,” she repeatedly sings to him in the song “Shall I tell you What I think of You?”
The King and I represents one of the few Broadway musicals where the male and female leads have no romantic attachment. Her increasing frustration with his majesty coincides with a growing endearment towards his children, her students. Prince Chululongkorn (David Gomez), the oldest prince and heir to the throne, in particular allows Anna and her Occidental ways to sway his outlook. In a pivotal speech, towards the end when clearly he will soon rule Siam, he decrees changes in Siamese custom, ultimately, Westernization. On the surface, we think, “Oh, good, Anna succeeded in civilizing a barbaric culture.” Upon second and third glance, one realizes that the play shows the laws, language, rituals, religion and values of the white man impinging upon an Asian land.
The cultural makeup of the Johnson County cast and audience fit comfortably into the conservative message of The King and I. Very few cast members are Asian, but most play Siamese characters. The actors utter not a word of Siamese, though one scene involves characters translating. Director Tammy Ruder, instead of researching appropriate tongue, staged it with the Siamese characters pantomiming instead of speaking Siamese. Chris McCoy’s choreography often takes from the American vernacular jazz dance style rather than echoing Asian dance forms.
Anna assists the king with hosting a dinner for Western emissaries, and part of the evening’s festivities includes a dance/drama of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, done in “Siamese” style, titled “Small House of Uncle Thomas.”
The director/choreographer Jerome Robbins first staged The King and I, and McCoy imitates Robbins’ work directly. Dancer Lindsay Cole performs the lead dance role of Eliza with solid balances and expressive legwork.
Craig Boyd brings humor to the role of the bombastic king. Anna teaches the king the polka in “Shall We Dance,” a landmark scene in American musical theatre. Boyd hilariously and believably learns the steps with awkwardness and a detached enthusiasm. Hohly sings sweetly as Anna, but speaks with a disjointed British dialect.
Perhaps audiences should look past what can be viewed as the celebration of one culture invading another.
The Theatre at Shawnee Mission Park offers a fun summer evening, outdoors, enjoying a sunset and watching a show. The producing organization serves well the youth of the metropolitan area, and The King and I presents adorable youngsters playing the many children of a polygamous monarch. Rodgers and Hammerstein created the piece at the height of American conservatism. Despite a dated political message, it remains a Broadway treasure.
The King and I runs until June 11 at the Theatre at Shawnee Mission Park. Curtain time is 8:30 p.m. Gates open at 7 pm. Early arrival is recommended; bring a picnic. Cats follows, running June 16 through 25, followed by Peter Pan June 30 through July 9, Grease July 14 through 23, and Bye-Bye, Birdie July 28 through Aug. 6. Call 913-312-8841 or visit www.theatreinthepark.org.
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The Writer’s Place in the Valentine neighborhood hosted the evening of June 6 a reading of a new work by playwright Frank Krainz titled Kansas.
Notably, this intimate performance included skilled and seasoned local actors under the direction of Cathy Barnett, herself an imposing force in the local professional theatre community. The actors, Nancy Marcy, Cheryl Weaver, Michael Andrew Smith, Julie Taylor and Bob Kohler all hold illustrious credits, and all brought vivid imagery to Krainz’ refreshing and haunting work.
The event proved both a performance and a sharing of ideas. Krainz and Barnett both preferred to designate Kansas not as a play but a “performance novel.” This initial reading included four vignettes, all set in the fertile state just west of Kansas City. Three women reflecting in lawn chairs in the summer sun, a woman complaining about catching her husband peeing in the sink, a man bemoaning the tired, Great American tragedy of the daily office job, and a series letters exchanged despite a repeated mistaken addressing.
Krainz has a riveting way of dancing from the mundane and wry into the gory. His pen peers into the psyches of Kansas characters, showing how Kansas appears placid but perhaps there’s a local undercurrent that gave rise to the sack of Lawrence, Carry Nation’s ax, Brown vs. the Board of Education and Fred Phelps. The play’s regular descent into the darker recesses of the human mind lies somewhere between subtle journey and instantaneous madness.
During a post-reading feedback session, Krainz announced interest in mounting the show fully, with moving paintings, projections and added dance segments. No concrete plans are yet in the works, but the passion of the actors and the enthusiastic response make a production likely.
For more information about future performances of Kansas, check www.Myspace.com. Krainz’ address is americansublime.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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