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The King and I’s revival a sharply paced hit

Jules Becker

When Anna Leonowens arrived at the court of King Mongkut (Rama IV) in the early 1860’s, slavery and inequality ruled Thailand- then Siam – as much as the United States. The now renown governess would later write about teaching many of the monarch’s children and wives English and British customs.

Her five years in Siam had a great impact on modernizer Mongkut – known as “The Father of Science and Technology” – and his son Chulalongkorn(Rama V), who eventually abolished all slavery there in 1905. Rodgers and Hammerstein turned the turbulent relationship of Anna and Mongkut into one of their finest musicals “The King and I,” now in a very solid revival at Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre (through Sunday).

 The tuneful 1951 show turned that relationship into a dramatic and still-timely musical that speaks volumes about equality and the power of education and understanding to bring change. Director Richard Stafford has wisely focused on these themes in a sharply paced revival.

 At a time when opportunities and fair wages for African American men and women are still a matter of great concern, Anna’s insistence on a house of her own instead of quarters in the palace and her rightful dissatisfaction with a paltry salary should continue to resonate strongly.

At the same time, while conditions in America have improved considerably from what abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe described in her then pioneering work “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,”  the dramatization of the book by Tuptim and other wives of the King does provide a timely reminder that the war against prejudice and inequality has been a long and formidable one.

All of the musical’s rich combination of Thai customs, vivid characters and serious attention to human rights issues proves compelling and entertaining in the NSMT’s engaging revival. Lorenzo Lamas may lack the initimidating qualities of Yul Brynner as the King in the early going, but he does persuade as Mongkut debates various issues with Anna.

Lamas also displays a pleasant singing voice during the monarch’s signature solo “A Puzzlement.” He is also quite graceful in duet with Kate Fisher as Anna in the musical’s famous waltz number “Shall We Dance?” Fisher is simply wonderful as Anna – properly feisty with the King and dynamic as a teacher. She sings with great feeling and sweetness – most notably on “Hello,Young Lovers.”

Fisher is the kind of large talent that North Shore Music Theatre should turn into a returning regular-like big-voiced George Dvorsky,who revisited strongly as the minister in the company’s recent revival of “Footloose.”

Manna Nichols as Tuptim and Joshua Dela Cruz as Lun Tha sing robustly in the moving duet “I Have Dreamed “ as ill-fated lovers. Giacomo Favazza has the right energy as Anna’s plucky son Louis, and Ellis Gage finds the right imperiousness and vulnerability as Prince Chulalongkorn, who will eventually succeed his father on the throne of Siam. Lisa Yuen has good authority as first wife Lady Thiang. African American  actress-dancer Maxine Stewart, a B.F.A. graduate of Emerson College, demonstrates strong turns and singular gracefulness during Tuptim’s memorable ballet adaptation of Stowe’s book entitled “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”

One of the most famous numbers in “The King and I” is the cheery schoolroom song “Getting to Know You.” NSMT’s winning revival ought to have adults and children alike befriending the Beverly showplace.

The King and I, North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through October 9. 978-232-7200 or nsmt.org.