It’s an extraordinary production of “The King and I” that Island Theatre Workshop (ITW) is currently mounting at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s Performing Arts Center. The backdrops alone, rising and falling — an 1860s Bangkok harbor, black-and-silver Siamese warriors, pagodas and emerald vistas, and many more — are reminiscent of the original production at the St. James Theater on Broadway in 1951, a musical by composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein that went on to become the fourth longest-running play on the Great White Way.
The costumes, too, are spectacular, from the Victorian crinolines of the schoolteacher’s wardrobes — the king of Siam calls them “swollen skirts” — to the dazzling gold jacket and leggings of the monarch, so rich against royal backdrops. But what mostly carries this production forward is the splendid casting that makes us forget the iconic Yul Brynner as the king (in both the Broadway and movie iterations), and Deborah Kerr as Anna in the movie. Paul Padua from New York, as the former, brings a modern sex appeal and humor to the ruler of Siam, nowadays known, of course, as Thailand, and Jenny Friedman of Oak Bluffs knocks Ms. Kerr out of the box with sympathy and a lovely singing voice.
And what’s not to love about the story? A widowed schoolteacher, with her young son, sails from Singapore to Siam, where’s she’s expected in the royal court to teach English and Western ways to the king’s 67 kids (he married late, he explains, apologetically, but he’s working on pushing out many more). She’s appalled, of course, by his harem — by the concept of it, although she quickly befriends the inner circle of wives, particularly the lead spouse, Lady Thiang, played by Shelley Brown of Oak Bluffs. Still, Anna manages to squeeze off some jibes: “I do not like polygamy/ Or even moderate bigamy,” which in turn she ends up rhyming with “a prig of me.”
A subplot drives the action: A new-to-the-court concubine, Lady Tuptim (Jenny Knight), is in love with a young scholar, a clear no-no when the Siamese monarch essentially owns you. Anna’s sympathies reside with the star-crossed pair, as she makes clear in the very beginning with her fabled song about her own lost beloved, “Hello young lovers wherever you are …”
A bit of trivia about the real story as revealed in the original memoir by Anna Leonowens about her time in the Siamese court: Anna herself was Eurasian, and she passed off her dark skin as the result of a Welsh heritage (who knew this about Welshmen?). The deceased Tom, whom she’d always described as an English officer, had in actuality been a hotel clerk; nothing wrong with hotel clerks, but the burnish of a military background was missing. Another fun factoid: King Mongkut had spent half his life as a Buddhist monk before rising to the throne. Nowadays when we’ve all had at least some exposure to Buddhist philosophy — something that wouldn’t necessarily have resonated with Rogers and Hammerstein and the original audience of the 1950s — we can understand how the monarch was open to other cultures, other worlds.
The upcoming production pays respect to the musical’s timeless songs, giving us such wonders as “Shall We Dance?,” an ear worm you’ll carry with you into the following day or even week. There’s the orchestra headed up by maestro James Higgins from New York, on keyboard and happily ensconced with a gong, his right-hand man, Matt Luton also on keyboard, currently in school in Connecticut, summer resident JoAnne Sgroy on flute, Islander Anne Davey on clarinet, New York 10th grader August Padua on French horn, Oak Bluffs resident Jan Hyer on cello, and the ever-performing Island musician and teacher Brian Weiland with a range of percussionist delivery systems: “I think of my section as a secret electronic tympany,” he says.
Meanwhile librettist Hammerstein has seen to it that “The King and I” is one of the wittiest musicals ever. The king dictates a letter for Anna to send to Abraham Lincoln, embroiled as the president is in a major war. “[He has] no elephants? I shall send him some!” To Anna’s scoldings about his multiple wives, he argues that this is the natural way: A bee visits many blossoms, but a blossom never itself flits from bee to bee. And some anthropologists today would argue he has a case. Monogamous societies are vastly outnumbered by polygamous cultures. “It’s a puzzlement!” the king regularly proclaims.
And, of course, there is the Waltz. The grand moment is emblazoned in our collective memory by Deborah Kerr in a cleavage-heavy hoopskirted golden ball gown, and Yul Brynner in his Siamese best, as he demands to be taught the dance he witnessed that night with his delegation of English guests. They join hands as she teaches him the back-and-forth of the waltz, “One-two-three, one-two-three!” Yes, he gets it, but he must perform it accurately, one hand scooped around her corseted waist, his other hand holding her right hand high. And suddenly as they swirl around the empty ballroom floor, they’re aware of how desperately attracted to each other they are and how they’re barred from any sort of a consummation. This dance, this song, is all they’ll ever have.
And then there are the kids! Lots of them! Many of them very little, and supremely adorable in miniature Siamese garb, choreographed to a fare-thee-well by ITW director Kevin Ryan.
As many of us know, this musical is at this very time enjoying its umpteenth revival on Broadway. Mr. Ryan told the The Times that because of this fact, and because another company is also due to stage it once more in Boston, he had a lot of ’splaining to do to get the “King and I” rights to mount it here. “I had to convince them of how relatively remote we are.”
Remote or not, the curtain will go up at the Performing Arts Center. Evening performances on August 22, 24, 25, 27, 28, and 29 at 7 pm, and two meet-and-greet matinees on the Sundays of August 23 and 30 at 3 pm: Fun for the kids to hobnob with the players in full costume. Tickets are available at ticketsmv.com.