By Randy Fadem
LA JOLLA, California — Matzah for donuts, dimes for dollars, The King and I is the best show in town. The performance was mesmerizing. J* Company captured the power and force of the original play and brought the audience along with them throughout the entire evening.
December 3rd through the 13th The King and I is playing at the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture, the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center at the Jacob’s Family Campus in La Jolla. It is presented and performed by the J Company Youth Theater.
Before the main curtain rose, the artistic director, Joey Landwehr, came out to face the audience. He acknowledged the many patrons that helped to make this performance possible and then he made a very special announcement. The lead actor, Daniel Myers who played the King of Siam, had decided to shave his head, not only for the role, but also to raise awareness and money to help cancer victims at Rady’s Children’s Hospital of San Diego.
He invited Myers to come out from behind the curtain and the two stood facing the audience wearing cloth caps on their heads. Landwehr stated that he had been so moved by Myers’ desire that he decided to join him and they both doffed their caps and revealed their shaven heads to the audience.
Landwehr then announced that he and Daniel had formed a new singing group; “Two Bald Guys.” This segued into an introduction to honor Eileen Wingard who was celebrating her 80th birthday. They walked over until they stood in front of her and then the “Two Bald Guys” led the audience into singing happy birthday to Wingard, a retired symphony violinist and mother of violinist Myla Wingard, a member of the 16- piece orchestra that provided the overture and accompaniment.
The highlights of the show were the performances by the two leads; Daniel Myers as the King and Ali Viterbi as Lady Anna. Ali’s poise and British accent successfully captured the often compromised predicament in which her character found herself in the Palace of the King of Siam in 1862. She filled the role with a robust and full-bodied voice in both her speaking parts and her singing.
Daniel gave a very animated performance of the complex personality of the King. The latter was an individual torn between his autocratic heritage and his desire to move into the future that Anna and the British represented. Myers brought this to life with a very expansive use of the stage; his gestures both facially and bodily reached out and engaged the audience.
The performance of the ensemble that represented the King’s two dozen children and the king’s wives were as exciting as the main leads and the various secondary characters.
Within a number of scenes the ensemble was required to change their positions and regroup elsewhere on stage. They did this with alacrity and fluidity. Their movements were well choreographed and well rehearsed. At times they had cameo roles and needed to come forth from the ensemble and interact with one of the main characters. This they did beautifully.
The ship that brought Anna and her son into Bangkok Harbor, upon docking, miraculously transformed itself into the interior of the Palace replete with books, weapons of war and gorgeous brocade curtains. These were the initial two scenes and set the tone for the exquisite scenery and imaginative and well designed set changes between scenes. The entire performance was a visual feast for the eyes.
The show stopping scene occurred shortly into the second act. This scene, a transcription of a segment from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was staged beautifully by J*Company. It combined the elements of Greek chorus, symbolic Oriental costuming and mellifluous dance movement which maintained the tension of the scene and had the audience sitting on the edge of their seats.
Perforce with children’s theater there is almost always an actor who steals the show. This was brought off by Ian Laughbaum who played both the captain and the visiting British delegate. His exaggerated supercilious British accent for the pompous British delegate brought the house down. This was a magnificent performance, a captivating play and J*Company has done a tremendous job.
How did J* Company put this performance together? Surprisingly rehearsals only began October 20th and ended the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The cast ranged in age from age 7 to age 17. According to a parent of one of the actresses, Melissa Niegocki, for some of the performers this was their first entry into theater. She cited Hana Pak who played Tuptim as one example. In addition she said, “This is my daughter’s first season and only her second show and they have treated the kids very well.” This cast of over four dozen children and teenagers were managed and led by director Landwehr, choreographer Deven Brawley, music director Jason Chase and stage manager Jamie Gillcrest.
Randy Fadem is a retired educator who recently relocated to San Diego from Boston. As an undergraduate he studied theatre, attended off-off Broadway productions in Manhattan, and acted in community theatre.