Which is why a golden-age musical set halfway around the world and encumbered by all those Victorian hoop skirts is still worth watching. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic continues at CdA Summer Theater through Saturday, Aug. 19; a matinee has been added that day at 2 pm.
As the central couple, Kelly Eviston Quinnett and Ben Gonio move gracefully and sing well; even better, they climb inside their characters and enact their puzzlements persuasively. Quinnett conveys Anna's intelligence, humor and self-confidence; Gonio demonstrates how a monarch's bossiness can be grounded in insecurity.
Oscar Hammerstein's book strains to include a separated-lovers subplot and strives too hard for tragedy at the end -- and Roger Welch's direction in the "Getting To Know You" scene is too cutesy -- but the overall effect of this production, nevertheless, is of romantic love improbably surviving.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & widow and her young son whisk themselves off to present-day Thailand -- a daunting prospect. But the refrain of their opening duet, "Whistle a Happy Tune" ("You can be as brave as you make believe you are") makes it clear that while Mrs. Leonowens may be vulnerable, she's also self-reliant. Actors create their heightened fictional worlds, and we can create our own pretenses, too; play-acting isn't always simply escapist; sometimes it's necessary (a point that Quinnett's performance capably makes).
For "Hello, Young Lovers," Quinnett takes it slow at first, then really sells the mixed emotions of sadness over her husband's death and gratitude for at least having found him. Welch has his Anna deliver much of the song to Tuptim (Grace Eunhye Lee), who certainly qualifies as an unrequited young lover herself. (She was given as a present to the king, but her heart is with another man.) Both Tuptim and Mrs. Leonowens are women and therefore unknown quantities to King Mongkut; Welch's staging emphasizes how mystifying obstacles to love can be. Because she plays both the lyrics' sadness and hope, Quinnett enacts Anna's emotional plight, creating the most romantic sequence in this version of Hammerstein's musical romance.
Gonio's physicality as the bossy ruler is remarkable. When his many, many children are paraded before him, naturally he's all arms akimbo in the Yul Brynner manner; but through small gestures here, and in a couple of exchanges with his son the prince, Gonio manifests his character's affection and hesitancy. In "A Puzzlement," he frets and holds his head and throws himself down upon the stairs -- yet it's not melodramatic, because Gonio teases the frenzy out of Mongkut's royal reserve. The king, usually forbidding, is also capable of laughing at himself. His "Who? Who? Who?" at any unexpected entrance makes him sound less like a tyrant than a nervous hoot-owl.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & teven Dahlke's 17-piece orchestra reaches romantic expressiveness at just the right moments, especially in Rodgers' beautiful melodies for Lun Tha and Tuptim's duets, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." Judith McGiveney contributes lots of Thai silk and Victorian finery to go with her husband Michael's colorful and versatile set. Lorna Hamilton's choreography is at its most inventive during the stylized reflection-via-Thailand of Uncle Tom's Cabin, a play within a play performed for the benefit of one slave owner (the king) and meant to provoke some reflection about other oppressors, too.
Hammerstein wants to deal with some important -isms (imperial-, sex- and femin-), but director Welch wisely de-emphasizes the politics in favor of the love story. The focus is on two lovers growing closer; the political distractions are there primarily to make the game of love more difficult.
Learning, after all, involves giving up a little of what you were sure you knew. Whatever seems at first like arrogance or barbarity in other people -- well, it has a way of fading once you've worked alongside them for awhile. The King and I offers its young lovers an idealized waltz as a reward ("Shall we dance? On a bright cloud of music shall we fly?"), but the dance has to end: Anna and the King each have a lot more personality, after all, than Cinderella and her bobble-head doll of a prince. The King and Anna were real people, once, with real problems and some insuperable obstacles.
Nobody gets to live happily ever after in Siam, but at least Coeur d'Alene audiences, after taking in this production's fine performances, get to go away happy for a short reprieve.