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Siamese Dream 

Now playing on the Great White Way: The King and I, Bring in 'da Noise ..., A Delicate Balance

Wednesday, Jul 10 1996
Trying to cover the full range of Broadway theater in a mere three days is clearly impossible. Especially this season, which offers a smorgasbord of the old and the new: sturdy revivals (The King and I, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Show Boat, A Delicate Balance) alongside brash newcomers -- some of which (Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, Rent) distinguish themselves as thrilling attempts to push the boundaries of musical theater, while others (Victor/Victoria, Beauty and the Beast, Big) seem little more than cynical exercises in marketing.

But if all you have is three days to be on the town, it's hard to go wrong with the stunningly beautiful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, the Joseph Papp Public Theater's feisty and innovative Bring in 'da Noise ..., and Lincoln Center Theater's brilliant restaging of A Delicate Balance.

Gorgeous curtains of voluptuous silk define the environment (designed by Brian Thomson, costumes by Roger Kirk, and lighting by Nigel Levings) for The King and I, which took home Tonys in the musical category for best revival, best actress, best costumes, and best design. While the music and lyrics represent Rodgers and Hammerstein at their best -- "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," "We Kiss in a Shadow," "Something Wonderful," and "Shall We Dance," along with "March of the Siamese Children" -- Oscar Hammerstein's book is problematic, especially for contemporary audiences sensitive to multiculturalism.

The show is based on Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam, which in turn was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, an English schoolteacher hired in 1862 by Siam's King Mongkut -- a shrewd monarch who successfully avoided Western takeover by bringing his country up to date with modern education.

Historically, the king's vision and foresight made him one of the region's most powerful and influential rulers. But as depicted in The King and I, he tends to epitomize the cartoonish cliche of the bumbling native. Anna, on the other hand, is the unerringly wise voice of civilization, always ready to instruct the king on matters of diplomacy and human rights. That we can't help agreeing with her only emphasizes the show's bias and fails to credit the real-life king with a powerful instinct for change.

Most of us come to this production with an indelible memory of Yul Brynner in this role; this is not dispelled or disturbed in the least by Lou Diamond Phillips' performance. He has his moments -- such as when he rages at Anna's interference in the matter of his treatment of an escaping concubine -- but for the most part, he rants and poses like a petulant adolescent. He is, in short, too young for the part. The absolutely essential element of eroticism that must spark "Shall We Dance" is curiously missing here.

This may have been partly due to the temporary replacement (July 2 to 7) of Donna Murphy, the show's Tony Award-winning star, by her understudy, the gracious and capable Barbara McCulloh. McCulloh's glorious voice and engaging presence make her a pleasure to watch, even if she tends to overdo the already sugar-sweet sentimentality of the play.

No such limitation applies to supporting players Joohee Choi as Tuptim, the reluctant concubine, or Taewon Kim as Lady Thiang, the king's head wife. Each manages to avoid the pitfalls inherent in speaking pidgin English and endows her character with strength, dignity, beauty, and dazzling vocal talent.

Christopher Renshaw's direction emphasizes the show's classical status and thus its problems. I wish he had worried more about pacing (sluggish) and the diction of key players, like Ryan Hopkins as young Louis Leonowens and John Chang as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, neither of whom were even intelligible most of the time. But Jerome Robbins' original choreography still glows, as does the additional staging of musical numbers by renowned choreographer Lar Lubovich.

For sheer exuberance it's hard to match Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. That's not unusual for a first-class Broadway show. What makes this one stand out is its powerful depiction of African-American history as seen through the development of tap dancing, first as an act of rebellion, then as an expression of the indomitableness of the human spirit, and, finally, as an art form in its own right. Co-created by N.Y. Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director George C. Wolfe (winner of the Tony for best direction of a musical) and dancer-choreographer Savion Glover, Noise/Funk movingly traces the history of an enslaved people who, having been forbidden the use of drums, allowed their feet to express and define "'da Beat." It is nothing less than the dramatic creation of something from nothing; of pulling life from the grimmest of cultural deaths.

Tony Award winner Glover (best choreography of a musical), who at 22 is a veteran Broadway star -- he was first nominated at age 12 for his performance in The Tap Dance Kid -- is a dancer of extraordinary ability and inventiveness. Like a great jazz musician, he uses his body to express the full range of human experience. He is supported by an equally spectacular ensemble: dancers Baakari Wilder, Jimmy Tate, Vincent Bingham, and Dule Hill; and drummers Jared Crawford and Raymond King. The latter pair are virtuosos of percussion, even if their more spectacular numbers (such as pounding away at pots and pans strapped to their bodies) seem lifted directly from shows like Stomp. Opera and gospel singer Ann Duquesnay won a Tony for her supporting role.

There is nothing to compare with the experience of seeing great actors brilliantly directed in a great play. A Delicate Balance, Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that pits an upper-middle-class family against the existential unknown, remains as vivid today as it must have been 30 years ago. Agnes (regally played by the splendid Rosemary Harris) and Tobias (flawlessly rendered by George Grizzard, who won the best actor Tony) are a wealthy late-middle-age couple living in an unnamed suburb. (The elegantly paneled set is designed by John Lee Beatty.)

In spite of their best efforts to repress all suggestion of disharmony, they are a family in crisis: Agnes is locked in a perpetual struggle with her irreverent alcoholic sister, Claire (the stunning Elaine Stritch, also a Tony winner), whose presence is unexplained except for a vague allusion to brief flings she had, first with Tobias, and then with his best friend, Harry (John Carter). This uneasy balance is disturbed first by the return of Agnes and Tobias' daughter, Julia (given an overwrought and feverish performance by Mary Beth Hurt), whose fourth marriage is on the rocks, and then by the sudden arrival of Harry and his wife, Edna (Rosemary Murphy), fleeing an unknown and intolerable fear.

Tony-winning director Gerald Gutierrez has found the silent black terror at the heart of Albee's drama and has threaded the action around and through it. This existential and pervasive dread -- considerably seasoned with humor -- is as mighty a presence as the powerful personalities that command the stage, yet it neither dwarfs nor is overpowered by them. It's an astonishing achievement that creates the perfect delicate balance between performance and play.

About The Author

Mari Coates


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