The Hale Center Theater in Orem is fond of doing Cecil B. DeMille-sized productions on its tiny stage, and the results have generally been successful. The latest attempt is “The King and I,” and though the show lacks some of the magic and charm that is supposedly inherent in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hoary old “classic,” it is mostly entertaining and fitfully amusing.
It’s the 1860s, and a widowed young Brit named Anna (M’Lisa Hansen) gets a job in Siam, teaching English to the king’s several dozen children and his almost-as-numerous polygamous wives. The king (Rex Kocherhans) is a gruff fellow, and he doesn’t exactly take a shine to Anna’s head-strong ways and feminist views, especially when she keeps bugging him with the fact that he promised to build her a house to live in while she’s there. (This is, like, a MAJOR concern of hers, or I wouldn’t even bring it up.)
Well, Anna starts to win the king over, especially when it’s reported that he’s a barbarian and she helps him convince the visiting Sir Ramsey (Vic Groves) that he’s not. How does she do this? By making all the Siamese (i.e., “strange”) gals dress up and act like Europeans (i.e., “normal people”), of course. They even perform a little play they wrote, based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that manages to make offensive farces out of both Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel, as well as East-Asian culture. Hooray for Europe; boo for all other cultures; that’s the message of “The King and I.”
Finally, there’s a reasonably happy ending, though with more death and mayhem than the numbingly tranquil two hours that proceed it might lead you to believe.
Hansen plays Anna with admirable pluck and fortitude, with “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” best showcasing her strong stage presence and fantastic singing voice. Kocherhans’s king is cryptic and aloof, but also rather endearing, and the many kids are as cute as kids get.
Beautiful Natalie Hill and hunky Jason Celaya play Tuptim and Lun Tha, two ill-fated star-crossed lovers, with charisma. Their singing voices are also top-notch.
At two hours and 40 minutes, the show drags a bit, particularly with more than a few lengthy songs that just don’t hold up very well anymore — like “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” a paean to self-delusion that encourages folks to PRETEND they’re happy as a way of actually BECOMING happy (“When I fool the people I fear/ I fool myself as well,” etc.).
Mary Linda Thomas’s choreography is at first clunky, but thoroughly redeems itself with the aforementioned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” thing. That whole scene is weird and culturally insensitive — did I mention some of the characters even have caricature African-American masks on? — but the avant-garde dancing done by the talented performers (Lindsay Killpack and Shelly Tucker among them) is notably good.
Director Syd Riggs has done a number of excellent shows for Utah County, and while “The King and I” is not the best of them, it’s not the worst way you could spend an evening, either.
This was the first of my "shorter" reviews: After my too-long review of "The Odyssey," my editor finally put a limit on how much I could write. I had generally been writing all the reviews about the same length, but the new limit she gave me was a bit less than that. You might think that makes it easier, because I don't have to write as much, but you would be wrong. It's much, much easier to write long than short. Any writer will tell you that. (I remember reading that someone famous once wrote in a personal letter to someone, "Sorry this is so long. I didn't have time to make it shorter.") So this was a challenge, but I was pleased with the way this particular review turned out.
The thing about the Hale Center Theater is that everyone who goes there is really old, and old people can't hear so good. So you have all these people repeating the dialogue to each other, because they couldn't hear it when the actors' said it. And of course old people can't whisper, which just exacerbates the situation.
Also exacerbating the theater situation around here are letters like this one, which the Daily Herald printed on April 17:
Just a thought that perhaps Eric Snider is better suited to review events such as rock concerts, sporting events or something involving young girls.
His review of "The King and I" lacked maturity or appreciation for the story itself ("hoary old 'classic'"), as well as even a basic knowledge of the original story.
Such reviews detract from the credibility of your paper.
Joseph and Paige Nemrow
As is usually the case with these letters, the writers' last name is also the last name of a few cast members. Coincidence, I'm sure.
The logic employed in this letter is basically this: We liked the show, and we understood it. Eric Snider didn't like the show; therefore, he must not have understood it. We liked the show, and we can't have been wrong in liking it; therefore, since you didn't like it, you must be in error, thus lessening your credibility.
Their complaint against my calling the show a "hoary old 'classic'" is interesting. The reason I used such terminology ("hoary" means out-dated, tired, worn-out) was to indicate that just because something is old and considered a "classic" doesn't necessarily mean it's actually any good. Often, it is merely because of tradition that we consider something a "classic," with little regard to whether or not it's actually quality work. And I think "The King and I" is a good example of something that has mysteriously survived for many years, despite being culturally offensive and artistically mediocre. The Nemrows' offense at my disrespect toward the show merely proves my point: Because it's old, they think it's a "classic" and therefore immune from criticism.
And I would like to point out, by the way, that this review is more or less a positive one. From the Nemrows' letter, you'd think I had totally destroyed it.
You'd also get that following impression from the following e-mail, which I received the next day, in exactly this form:
I have never heard someone rip on s play as you did on the King and I. [Whew, you ain't seen nothin' yet, kid.] If you don't like the story already, then for heaven sake send someone else to do the press release! I happen to be in the play and I am [I'm omitting the character name to protect the writer's identity], I was not on the noght you did the press release, but I happen to know that Rex Kocherhans is a very good "King." So next time you are asked to do a press release, do all of us at the Hale Center Theater send someone that knows what they are talking about, and enjoys the plays! Because from what it sounds like you don't like to sit through plays, so again do us the favor and send someone else! We would all appreciate it!
"Send someone that knows what they are talking about, and enjoys the plays." Allow me to re-phrase: "You clearly doesn't know what you're talking about; if you did, you would have enjoyed the show. Why? Because the show is good. How do I know the show is good? Because everything is good. I live in La-La Land, where clouds are made of cotton candy and the streets are paved with chocolate, and every play is wonderful and brilliant, and the only people who don't like them are people who don't know what they're talking about. La la la. Also, my head is inside my butt. La la la. The end."
I am still always amazed at how, when I give a negative review, the only explanation people can come up with is that I simply don't know theater very well. The idea that maybe I just have opinions that are different from theirs doesn't even enter their minds, apparently.
And what did I say about the guy who played the king, anyway? I said he was "endearing," which I thought was a GOOD thing. Oh, well.
And then came this letter, printed in the Daily Herald on April 22:
I am writing this letter in regards to the recent review of the Hale Center Theater's "The King and I" by Eric Snider. As I have read Snider's articles on many plays, I have tolerated his cheap-college sarcasm to the best of my abilities, but no more. When I read his reviews, I get the feeling that he has only pure irreverence for the hard work and good talent essential to good theater, and that he also lacks understanding of the basic elements of theater. [Having watched 100 plays in the last 18 months, and having a degree in journalism, you'd think I'd have picked up something on either theater or writing, but evidently not.]
I am an actress and theater-goer who has watched Snider in an audience reviewing a show. The attitude he has as he walks into the auditorium is enough to guarantee negative results. As a person who has acted and seen several professional shows, I could be guilty of being an "Eric Snider" in the audience. I like to sit down and have the attitude of "Here I am, entertain me." [I honestly have no idea what she's talking about here. She doesn't explain what she means by "the way he walks into the auditorium," but I wish she would. Generally, I walk into the theater, take my seat, and look through the program. Occasionally I'll make a note or two about the set. Often, I'll engage in casual conversation with whomever I'm there with, until the show starts, at which point I'll shut up. I don't know which element of this routine indicates whatever attitude she thinks I have. Oh, she must mean that one time I walked into the auditorium, stepped on stage, and urinated on it to mark my territory.]
But I was impressed when I saw "The King and I." The acting was quite powerful and well done, the singing even more so. In his review, Snider slightly mentioned these aspects of the show in a way that you could practically miss them. [I will grant her a point here, that perhaps I talked more about the show itself -- the script, that is -- than about this particular production. I might have focused more on the Hale Center Theater's specific version of it.]
He also took no notice of the beautiful costuming and elaborate set. [It is obvious that I "took no notice" of those things, for if I had noticed them, I would surely have mentioned them. My 550-word review contained every single thought I had about the show, after all.] The costuming surpassed any that I have seen in community theater, and the set was the most complete and artistic of any I have seen at the Hale.
As far as "cultural insensitivity" goes, l found nothing in the show to be racially offensive or disturbing in any way. The portrayal of the Siamese people was endearing and noble. [Oh, sorry, my mistake. I must have been wrong when I expressed my opinion.]
I and many others [for example...?] believe that Snider's sarcastic attitude has no place in his reviews. It represents immaturity and a lack of professionalism and I believe he does The Daily Herald a disservice. I would ask Eric Snider to be a little more sensitive when sharing his views, and save his sarcasm for the opinion section of the paper.
And so it goes. Bonnie Beus, I later discovered, sometimes works at the box office/concession stand at the Hale Center Theater. No doubt once or twice when I picked up my tickets, I failed to smile at her, thus helping her decide I was a jerk.
She e-mailed me many months later, saying some nice things, more or less, and sort of acknowledging her previous unpleasantness (not apologizing, but at least acknowledging).