Reaching the proverbial next level is something anyone who really cares about their craft is looking to attain, and theaters are certainly included.
Artists on stage and off want to find that performance or production that says, "that was then, this is now," — that moment where the bar is raised.
At 5-years-old, Paragon Music Theatre certainly has a past to be proud of. It almost single handedly revived musical theater by local artists as a regular feature on Lexington's arts calendar, and did it by being innovative and traditional. It could have just stayed the course with its current production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's The King and I and been fine. But in several ways, the production takes Paragon to a new level.
The show is the main stage directing debut for the company's artistic director Robyn Peterman-Zahn, and King shows her, music director Ryan Shirar and choreographer Diana Evans-Pulliam are a formidable trio. And they are not alone, as lighting designer Scott Glascock painted the stage beautifully, costume designer Anita Shirar offered outfits it looked like she must have worked on for a year, and Tony Koehler's sets are so sublime you'd assume they were rented from a professional company if you didn't know better — you now know better.
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One thing Paragon has always had going for it is lead actors, and a deep stable of them too. It's been a while since the company repeated a leading man or lady, but they are consistently strong and well cast.
As Anna and the King, Jennifer Parr and Whit Whitaker look like they were born to play these parts. Parr's Anna was strong, assertive and sweet, just the combination the role demands. And her voice was full and floated in classics such as Hello, Young Lovers. Opening night, Thursday, her throat did show a little wear late in the show from an illness earlier this week that made it a bit amazing she was on stage.
With his performance as the King, Whitaker lived up to his first name without the h. He delivered the King's many quips with ease looking as comfortable as he ever has in a role.
But the show's strength this time was in ensemble, particularly Susan Rahmsdorff as the King's head wife, Lady Thiang, and Stephanie Wier as Tuptim. Both had show-stopping moments, Rahmsdorff showing particular versatility between Something Wonderful and Western People Funny. As Paragon moves its leads around, you have to think these ladies will be contenders for the spotlight in future productions. Michael Van Zant was also winning as Kralahome, a very different role for the actor who a mainstay of straight plays in Lexington.
The moment where it was really clear this show was a step up for the company was The Small House of Uncle Thomas, the ballet of Uncle Tom's Cabin that is presented by the King's wives and royal dancers. Ensemble choreography has been a place past Paragon shows have fallen short, but this and a few other numbers were sharp and entertaining.
On the flipside, orchestras have long been a Paragon strength, and the King pit crew was as sharp and sumptuous as ever. Peterman-Zahn announced Thursday night that the company will stage a fall production of Hello Dolly! at the Opera House in October, so hopefully we are past those strange days of the orchestra playing backstage at the Downtown Arts Center.
Time and those future shows will tell if Paragon can continue to clear this reset bar. For now, King and I is a production to be savored.