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Rodgers and Hammerstein's 'The King and I' easily Keeton Theatre's crown jewel

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The King and I, The Larry Keeton Theatre, Nashville TN

Rating:
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In a seamless follow-up to last month's 'The Sound of Music', The Larry Keeton Theatre's current production of yet another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, 'The King and I' kicks off their new 2013-2014 with a truly royal theatrical experience. Having seen dozens of shows produced at The Keeton Theatre over the past several years, I must say their current mounting of the classic musical is, hands-down, the best show I've ever seen at the popular dinner theatre, and for that matter, pretty much any local area theatre company in quite some time.
Even though The Keeton is a dinner theatre, for whatever reason, I rarely mention the dinner portion of the evening. Don't get me wrong. It's always tasty, with usual fare consisting of baked chicken, lasagna or the like, with usual sides. This time around, The Keeton went the extra step in the planning and presentation of the meal preceding 'The King and I'. A delicious stir-fry with a decidedly Thai twist was cleverly accompanied by orange sherbet and fortune cookies, getting the evening off to great start. 
Once again, at the helm of this latest production are the spectacularly talented Keeton Theatre's dynamic duo of Choreographer/Co-Director, Jamie London and Co-Director/Musical Director, Ginger Newman. Lending his expertise to the palatial set is Michael Redman, who Nashville-area theatre patrons will no-doubt recognize as Technical Director for Nashville Children's Theatre. Joining the creative team for the first time, and setting the bar enormously high for future endeavors at The Keeton is Costumer Susan Hart, aided by Assistant Costumer, Joyce Hailey. The costumes in this show are simply spectacular. I particularly appreciate the fine attention to details like the abundance of gold jewelry worn by several members of the cast. Often times, when actors wear jewelry, the noise of the bangles and interfere with the mics. Thankfully, this doesn't wasn't an issue during the performance I attended. 
As Music Director, Ginger Newman and her three-piece band somehow manage to bring the instantly recognizable soundtrack to such life that it boggles the mind to fathom that all that rich sound is coming from such a small musical ensemble.
As for the action onstage, after a supporting role in Keeton's 'The Sound of Music', I was thrilled to see one of my theatre crushes front and center once again as Tonya Pewitt blew me away as Anna, the aforementioned 'I' in the show's first-person title. Over the past years, I've seen Tonya star in everything from 'White Christmas' and 'Chicago' to 'Into the Woods' and more recently in Keeton's '9 to 5'. If you're familiar with those shows, it's evident from her credits alone that Tonya's versatility as an actress/songstress is surpassed only by her spot-on ability to channel everyone from a small town, big-hearted, but misunderstood southern girl like '9 to 5''s Doralee, to the proper, but stern British-born Anna Leonowens in 'The King and I'. Tonya is not only beautiful to watch, but also spell-binding to listen to. 
Pewitt sparkles throughout the show, but familiar musical moments like 'I Whistle a Happy Tune', 'Getting to Know You' and 'Shall We Dance' allow her to truly shine.
It's often said that an actress' performance is influenced by that of her leading man. If that's true, Pewitt struck gold as bright as her 'Shall We Dance' gown by the chance casting of first-time thespian, Mike Cole as The King. I say 'chance casting' because Cole only agreed to audition after the urging from his young son, Bryton Cole, who thought it would be fun for he and his father to audition together. As fate would have it, both were cast, as young Bryton appears as Anna's son, Louis. 
As The King, Mike Cole is the absolute modern embodiment of the role forever iconically linked to Yul Brenner. Cole not only commands the stage, but he does so with a underlying balance of power and gentleness, the latter perhaps attributed to the fact that his day-job is that of a pastor in nearby Mount Juliet. I have to reveal that the last time I saw a production of 'The King and I', Lou Diamond Phillips was starring at The King in a national tour. If you ask me, Cole's majestic performance was a million times better. Cole seem a natural while delivering his lines, with just enough of a hint of a perfectly believable dialect. Add to that, his singing voice featured throughout, but showcased during Act 1's 'A Puzzlement' and Act 2's 'Shall We Dance' duet with Pewitt. Being familiar with the show, I did notice one instance when newcomer Cole temporarily hesitated on a line, but not to worry, proving she is truly there for her on-stage companion, Pewitt quickly aided him in picking up right where he left off. I'm sure I was the only one in the audience who even noticed, but then again, if that's the only glitch it mention in a show, you know it's gotta be good. If The Keeton knows what's great for them, they'll hopefully cast Cole in future productions.
Also making her Keeton debut is Kayla Winslow as Lady Thiang. In the role of the King's chief wife, Winslow gets the opportunity to perform yet another of the show's most popular tunes, 'Something Wonderful' and her vocals during this song are just that. She along with the other actresses cast as The King's wives are not only fun to watch in some of the show's larger ensemble numbers, but they are to be commended for taking on the added responsibility of keeping a watchful eye on the dozen or show children cast as The King's children. The youth cast prepared for their role as the royal children during a two-week 'King and I' Camp, and judging from the crowd reaction, that work definitely paid off.
Last seen as one of the nuns in last month's 'The Sound of Music', Crystal Kurek gets the chance to feature as Princess Tuptim in 'The King and I'. Kurek's bio in the program reveals a bit of fate, as the stunningly beautiful headdress Kurek wears as Tuptim actually belongs to the actress herself and was given to her by her father when she was a young girl. That said, she fulfills her destiny, and then some, most notably during yet another of the show's familiar songs, 'We Kiss in a Shadow', her duet with another familiar Nashville performer, Justin Boyd. My theatre crushes aren't limited by gender, and Boyd is quickly becoming one of them, after stand-out performances in the aforementioned '9 to 5' and last year's Circle Players/TSU collaboration of 'The Color Purple' in which he starred as Harpo.
Still another familiar face coming into their own is young Sevon Askew. Cast as The King's heir, Prince Chulalongkorn, Sevon perfect mimics Cole's regal movements, and with a surprisingly commanding presence for such a young actor. It's exciting to see Sevon, Bryton and the rest of the young cast, if for no other reason than to know the future of Nashville theatre is surely at the ready.
Also worthy of mentioning is the oddly intriguing 'The Small House of Uncle Thomas' dance sequence. Like most Rodgers and Hammerstein mid-century musicals, 'The King and I' includes a modern-dance sequence that doesn't exactly fit with the flow of the rest of the show. Thanks to some lavish costumes, kabuki-style makeup and entertaining choreography courtesy of Jamie London, it works.
Half a century after it's Broadway debut, every last detail of 'The King and I' is still as enchanting as ever, thanks of course to a lastingly gorgeous love story, memorable soundtrack and in the case of The Keeton Theatre's current production, through the collaboration of the entire cast and crew consisting of some of Nashville most talented show people.
'The King and I' continues its run with Thursday through Sunday performances, now through August 17. Dinner and Show tickets are $27 for Adults or $18 for Children. Show Only tickets are available for $22 for Adults and $13 for Children. Thursday performances offer a special Show Only price of $14. Season Flex Passes are also available. To purchase tickets, CLICK HERE. Day of show tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 615.883.8375.
Up next at The Larry Keeton Theatre is 'Little Women: The Musical', with show dates October 10-26.
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