Some superb vocal performances turn an otherwise ordinary production of "The King and I" at Elizabeth Howard's Curtain Call-Dinner Theatre into something extraordinary.
Under Kent Johnson's direction, we are reminded of the enduring appeal of the tale of the young British widow who becomes teacher to the many wives and children of the King of Siam. Musical director Doug Shaffer has taken some liberties with the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein score, often bringing a fresh perspective to the familiar melodies, but the changes occasionally produce an awkward passage.
This "King and I" clearly revolves around Clynell Jackson's King. Jackson obviously takes great joy in his royal duties, and his passion for the role yields a winning performance that is childlike and yet graceful and sensual. His recitative treatment of "A Puzzlement," the character's signature song, offers a nice interpretation of its subtleties. As Anna, Karen Forest is suitably sweet and prim on the exterior, but she's all custard inside too. We see none of the steel that would make her a more formidable adversary, and later, a stronger compatriot. In their moments together, Jackson and Forest don't set off sparks, although "Shall We Dance?" is the grand moment it should be.
Joy Matthews delivers a strong Tuptim, the King's Burmese slave who loves another man. Matthews' fiery portrayal and full-bodied vocal power transforms what can be played as a stock sweet young thing into a passionate, defiant woman. Paul Nicholas' emotional rendering of Lun Tha, her lover, creates a powerful complement, and their dynamic interpretations give a good pull of tension to their beautifully sung duets. Carmen Del Rio is very spirited and sentimental as Lady Thiang, the King's chief wife, and Earl Weaver is enigmatic yet vulnerable as the Kralahome.
The sets, provided by the Theatre Company, have a spare, coloring-book look that is decidedly not exotic. David Wilkinson's minimal choreography is most effective in the "Getting to Know You" sequence, in which fans of various sizes and colors are used to striking effect.
"The King and I" continues through May 25 at Elizabeth Howard's Curtain Call-Dinner Theater, 690 El Camino Real, Tustin. For information, call (714) 838-1540.