Near perfect 'King'; 'Daughter' hard to raise 

‘The King and I’
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Dec. 1

Lush and lavish, the Rep’s “The King and I” is a fantastic holiday play. Although there are no reference to any of the holidays of the season, the pomp, the costumes and the richness hit all the right notes.

The sets are stunning. The costumes are amazing. The cast of almost 50 is in control and near perfection. The Rep’s holiday production is truly a family treat for the season.

First of all, let’s talk about the children, who range in age from 5 to 17. If anything, I wish they were on stage more. They come across as consummate pros, which earns director Brad Mooy a tip of the of the hat, as they are never cloying while always being engaging.

Second, the subplot involving Tuptim (Luz Lor), a Burmese slave, and Lub Tha (played by Wayne Hu), her lover, showcases the strongest and most earnest voices and acting in the entire cast.

Finally, there is the ballet within in the musical: “Small House of Uncle Thomas” is not only a play on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but a reminder to all of the privileged inside the Rep about those panning for change outside. It is by turns hilarious, sad and beautiful and makes your $50 ticket worth it just for the costumes, not to mention the amazing choreography by Zhenjun Zhang. I can’t say enough, even considering all the productions of “The King and I” that are out there, about the “Small House of Uncle Thomas.”

Sarah Solie is brilliant as Anna, and Mooy and Rep producing artistic director Robert Hupp made wise decisions in renting show costumes used in the national tour and letting these actors live up to them. Her son, Charlie Askew as Louis Leonowens, stands out immediately as a strong voice and a child to watch as he makes his way up the local theater ladder.

By now, everyone probably knows the plot of the musical is that the headstrong Anna is brought to the Kingdom of Siam of teach the royal children in the way of the Western world. Of course chaos ensues and chemistry develops between the King and Anna.

The only misstep I see — and it does so pain me point it out —is Enrique Acevedo’s portrayal of the King. He is much too young, and much too tough-looking, for one to believe that he will come to the end that he does (we don’t want to give it away). His voice is not quite strong enough to match Sarah Solie, his supposed foil, and yet his body — he has a similar frame to those on the wrestling team I knew and watched in high school — keeps me from believing he can go from the glow of love to … well, I don’t wish to give it away.

If you have kids, especially, you should take a night and see this magical musical, whose joy outweighs the underlying sorrow tenfold. “The King and I” continues through Dec. 31.


‘An American Daughter’
Weekend Theater’
Dec. 2

Wendy Wasserstein is one of the preeminent contemporary playwrights of the 20th century, and I was glad to see the Weekend Theater taking her on with its new production, “An American Daughter.” Familiar with Wasserstein’s work, I looked forward to her typical biting, fast-paced, topical dialogue. Unfortunately, this Wasserstein play has aged a bit and the Weekend Theater crew may not have been completely prepared to take it on just yet.

“An American Daughter” is the story of a talented, far-left liberal female doctor Lyssa Dent Hughes (Fran Jameson), daughter of a right-wing senator, Alan Hughes (Tucker Steinmetz), and nominee for surgeon general. Before her confirmation hearings she is interviewed by Timber Tucker, a hard-hitting reporter. Lyssa’s husband, the academic has-been Walter Abrahmson (Byron Taylor), and their family friend, the gay, over-articulate Morrow (Charles Sanchez), manage to reveal in front of Tucker that the surgeon general-elect has never served on a jury, despite having been summoned several times.

Of course, there is major fallout from the interview, complete with satellite-news trucks on the front lawn and a constantly ringing phone. There is also the personal fallout, as Lyssa’s husband takes this moment to embrace, literarily, one of his students, Quincy Quince (Julie Atkins), a second- or maybe even third-wave feminist who blames Lyssa and her pioneering sisters for not being prepared for the inevitable problems of trying to “have it all.”

The two rocks in Lyssa’s life are her father and her oldest childhood friend. The right-wing Sen. Hughes is willing to sacrifice his career to stand up for his daughter’s nomination, while Lyssa’s friend, Dr. Judith Kaufman, an African-American Jewish woman she met in boarding school, stands by Lyssa despite her own deep personal struggles.

Felicia Richardson, as Dr. Kaufman, stands out. She holds the play and herself together, along with Patti German, who plays “Chubby,” the fourth wife of Sen. Hughes. Both are talented and come across as true pros.

Other actors repeatedly trip over their lines, however, and in this sort of play, where wit and the ability to out-articulate is all, it’s a major failure. Also, Atkins and Sanchez, with as much promise as they show, are over-excited and positively hammy in their efforts to be energetic and part of a new generation — to show up their mentors. The same could be accomplished with a subtle and smart reading of the lines rather than, for example, Atkins’ constant kittenish purr.

All in all, many prescient and interesting topics are touched on here. The play seems somewhat dated — a tad “Murphy Brown”-like — but politics is often cyclical and we all remember a time when a liberal could have been nominated as surgeon general, and we know that such a time will come again.

The show continues Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9, and again Dec. 15-16 at the theater at Seventh and Chester streets. Call 374-3761 for reservations.


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