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REVIEW: Performances, costumes shine in 'The King and I'

Jessica Baas, right, sings a solo during rehearsal for the ACT production "The King and I" while Caelan Tirrel looks on. Baas was cast as Anna Leonowens and Tirrel plays her son, Louis. (Jennifer Jungwirth/Republic)

Mitchell Area Community Theatre opens its 2011-2012 season royally with Rogers and Hammerstein's stage musical, "The King and I." The play is directed by Anessa Klumb, who also directed "A Christmas Carol" and "Arsenic and Old Lace."

The production is based on the 1944 novel "Anna and the King of Siam," written by Margaret Landon. The novel shares the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a Welsh widow who goes to Siam -- now known as Thailand -- to take a job in Bangkok as tutor to the polygamous King Mongkut's many children in the early 1860s. She was hired as part of the King's effort to modernize his country. She and her son live in the palace, although she was promised a house of her own. The relationship between the King and Anna is one of conflict, as well as one of love that neither is able to openly express.

Anna, played by Jessica Baas, sings effortlessly, and her beautiful voice fills the theater. Anna and her son, Louis, played by Caelan Tirrel, open with a duet of "I Whistle a Happy Tune" as Anna is calming her son's fears after his meeting of the King's "Prime Minister," the Khralahome, played by Devin Carey.

The King is played by veteran ACT actor Al Jacklin. He is commanding as the King of Siam. He has many wives, and upwards of 67 children. He desires to have his children and the mothers, who are in favor of the King, taught the Western ways. He is intrigued by the challenges of this teacher, this woman. Jessica and Al developed a believable chemistry between their two characters.

The King is presented with the gift of the slave girl Tuptim, played by Mariah Klumb, by the king of Burma to be one of his many wives. Tuptim is brought to the King by Lun Tha, played by Jacob Pecenka, a Burmese scholar who is in love with Tuptim. The duo later sings "We Kiss in the Shadows" -- a song about the love that can never be. Though they struggle with vocals, the emotion came through in their actions.

Anna meets the King's head wife, Lady Thiang, played by Mary Tirrel, and his other wives. They are fascinated with her and her late husband Tom, which prompts Anna's wonderful "Hello Young Lovers."

The King's children are introduced to Anna in the ever familiar "March of the Siamese Children." As these children enter the stage one could hear the "aww" as the littlest ones made their way to Anna. She is charmed by the children and at that point agrees to stay in Siam. In the classroom, the children are surprised to see how small Siam is compared to the rest of the world. The crown prince, Chulalonghorn, played by Nick Johnson, refuses to believe. "Getting to Know You" is sung by Anna and the children join in. It is a crowd pleaser.

After watching Anna's teaching of her view of the world and home life, the King is confused about the world around him. In the song "The Puzzlement," the King laments the world being so complicated. Al gave a valiant effort in this song.

The King gets word that the British view him as a barbarian. Lady Thiang, the King's head wife, talks to Anna and tells her the king is troubled and convinces Anna that the King needs her support. Lady Thiang expresses herself beautifully with the song "Something Wonderful."

The British launch a voyage to Bangkok to visit the King. To prove he is not a barbarian, a European-style affair is planned and the wives will wear Western clothing. The King summons Buddhas for help for sewing of dresses and announces that Anna will get a house of her own. The King and Anna have a playful exchange as the King maintains no one's head should be higher than his. With a wink, he is sure to make Anna comply.

To entertain the guests, Tuptim has written a play based on Uncle Tom's Cabin called "Small House of Uncle Thomas." Tuptim narrates the play.

Shelby Riggs was exceptional in her portrayal of Eliza, the slave who is escaping from the evil King Simon of Legree, artfully played by Chris Hiles. The movement and pantomime in this piece are exciting to watch as the ensemble presents the play in a Siamese dance. Devin Carey should be credited as dance captain.

After the festivities, Anna is carried to thoughts of dancing and begins to move about the floor. The King sees this and demands to learn to dance. At this point, "Shall We Dance" brought spontaneous applause from the audience. Their dancing is interrupted by the news that Tuptim has been captured after being declared missing. The King is determined to punish her, much to Anna's dismay. To prove his power as King over her disapproval, he takes the whip himself. But as Anna stands watching, he is unable to administer the punishment, thus feeling powerless.

Anna then plans to leave Siam when Crown Prince Chulalongkorn gives her a letter from the king, who can't solve his inner conflicts. Anna (Jessica) gives a highly moving performance as she reads his letter and returns to the King.

The costuming in this production is spectacular. Much of the fabric for the costumes came from Cambodia for authenticity. It was a tremendous undertaking by Kathy Northrup and a gracious group of seamstresses who worked many hours. Einstein's and Cindy Bierman deserve a big thank you as well. The set was functional. Devin Carey designed the lighting, which sets the tone for the scenes and the special lighting enhanced the Bangkok silhouettes. The music was presented by InstrumentalEase powered by Sinfonia. It enhanced the whole production with the true instrumental elements required.