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Young performers do fine justice to 'The King and I'

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One can usually expect to experience theater with a professional polish when seeing a Summer Stock Stage production, and “The King and I,” viewed by this writer Sunday at Ayres Auditorium at Park Tudor School, was no exception.

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A nonprofit summer theater program for teenage performers, Summer Stock Stage was co-founded in 2004 by Emily Ristine Holloway who also directed this last of the program’s musical productions.

The main cast for “The King and I” consisted of 40 students, ages 13-19, from grades ranging from eighth to entering freshman year in college, representing 23 schools in central Indiana. Also in the production were 24 students, ages 6-12, from kindergarten through seventh grade, representing 12 schools, who played the royal princes and princesses. Twelve high school students worked on the crew.

“The King and I,” one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most durable musicals, premiered on Broadway in 1951, and starred Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. The plot revolves around assertive Anna, a British governess, hired by the progressive King of Siam to educate his numerous children and wives as part of his drive to modernize his country. Cultural differences between the two are cause for constant conflict, but beneath their adversarial relationship are romantic feelings which neither is able to acknowledge.

As mentioned earlier, though primarily an educational effort, thanks to Ristine, music director Jeanne Bowling (who led a professional orchestra), choreographer Cherri Jaffee and the entire creative team, the finished product was impressive for the quality of its casting, direction, and performances. And thanks to Kyle Ragsdale’s (a leading Indy artist) art and set design, Bowling’s costumes, Michael Moffatt’s lighting design and Ben Tobler’s sound design, the show’s production values were first rate.

But all the behind the scenes support and resources would have been for naught had it not been for the tremendous talent exhibited by the actors in primary roles including Elizabeth Hutson as Anna, Aaron Huey as the King, Hope Fennig as Lady Thiang, Mara Phelps as Tuptim, Joseph Mervis as Prince Chulalongkorn, and Nick Gehring as Lun Tha. All of them convincing actors, they each turned in strong vocal performances and were remarkable for the poise and concentration they exhibited. The remainder of the cast and the entire ensemble also deserve plaudits for their believability and the energy they brought to the stage.

Director Ristine and choreographer Jaffee’s exceptional work was most evident in the show’s highlights which included the “March of the Siamese Children,” “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and the climatic “Shall We Dance” that saw members of the audience break into prolonged synchronized applause.

Ristine is to be commended for her color-blind casting and wise decision not to attempt to make-up members of the mostly Caucasian cast to appear Asian, but it might have proved more effective had the accents used by those actors who played the Siamese characters been more consistent and less caricatured.

Minor flaws aside, this solid collaboration which featured so many promising young performers, guided by some of the most gifted pros around, has a lot to be proud of. Not only did they successfully convey one of the most uplifting stories in American musical theater, they did so with passion and heart.

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