I’m always excited when Good Company Players stages a new musical — because new is fun. But there’s a lot to be said for rejuvenating a classic, too. The company’s vibrant and heartfelt new production of “The King and I” is a fitting tribute to a beloved title.
It helps that director Elizabeth Fiester’s production is such a lush and colorful visual experience. The sets, designed by David Pierce, feel rich and majestic — and very red, as befitting the halls of the palace of the king of Siam. Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes — a whirl of beautiful gowns, luxurious robes, layered silks — feature a color palette that bursts with bright swaths of color, but never in a brash way. Andrea Henrickson’s lights create a sense of sun and vitality, but also the hushed grandeur of great wealth.
Still, it’s the story and the music that make “The King and I” such a memorable title. Tess Mize makes a compelling Anna Lenowens, the determined Englishwoman who in the mid-19th Century makes the long journey to Siam to teach Western culture to the king’s children. Mize’s gentle, stirring soprano animates with sweetness the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic tunes “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Hello, Young Lovers,” but there’s also strength to her Anna, setting up a believable tug-of-war-of-wills with the king.
Other standouts include Dominic Grijalva’s Lun Tha, who has some beautiful vocal moments and a strong chemistry with Kindle Cowger (Tuptim). Hammerstein didn’t give Lun Tha much to do in the show besides sing pretty, but Grijalva does that awfully well. Cynthia Clup-Rhodus, as the king’s senior wife, Lady Thiang, is another memorable performer, giving her character a sly, dignified authority.
Choreographer Kaye Migaki creates a first-rate story ballet for “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” nicely sung by Cowger as Tuptin, with notably fine dancing. (And complemented by Lewis-Reed’s beautiful masks.)
Two things overall really turn this show into an emotional powerhouse, however. The first is the sheer impact of the big ensemble of wives and children, who adorned in their finery create a palpable sense of spectacle. When the king’s children are introduced to Anna for the first time, it’s stirring.
The second is an unforgettable performance by George Akina in the leading role of the king. (He alternates performances with Dindo Dizon; Akina performs at Thursday and Saturday evenings and Sunday matinees.) Akina plays gruff beautifully, but he never stretches it to the point of plain mean, which I’ve seen in some versions of “King and I.” Akina has wonderful comic timing, and in such songs as “A Puzzlement” he captures a sense not only of a man trying to make sense of a woman but a ruler trying to make sense of a changing world. I’ve seen Akina in many community theater roles over the years, and mostly it’s been in gently comic parts such as Belle’s father in “Beauty and the Beast” and Shrek’s father in “Shrek.” Here, as the King, he leaves behind the diffidence of a supporting player and anchors a show.
This is one of those times when as a critic it is impossible to separate the personal — what I know about an actor beyond his or character — from my perception of a show. As I wrote in November, Akina is battling advanced prostate cancer. He performed wonderfully in “Shrek,” and the even more wonderful news is that he gives such a vigorous, heartfelt performance in “The King and I” that you’d never know he was sick. His bluster on stage is wonderfully deft, and the way that bluster softens into a prickly chemistry with Mize, as Anna, gives the show a sweet, emotional heft.
And when in the song “A Puzzlement” Akina sang this simple line — “Everyday I try to live another day” — I was tremendously moved. It’s one of those moments in the theater when your heart can do nothing but soar.