Story: Anna Leonowens, an English widow living in Singapore in 1862, takes a job as teacher for the children of King Mongkut of Siam, the Southeast Asia nation now known as Thailand. The ruler wants to modernize his country to some extent, although not abandoning the polygamy which allows him to have many wives who have borne him 57 children to date.
He is interested in having Anna teach English and other subjects to the many children he favors as well as some of his wives. From the outset, a sometimes contentious relationship develops between Anna and the King, who have different recollections of a house she says was promised to her for living quarters in her contract to teach.
The King learns much from Anna, seriously attempting to have his government looked upon respectfully by England and other European nations, lest it be conquered and taken over as a protectorate, a fate which has befallen nearby Burma to France.
Anna helps the King prepare for a visit by English dignitaries to prove he is not a “barbarian,” as the two develop a mutual respect for each other, albeit still frequently disagreeing to the chagrin of the King’s staff and family. Eventually that respect grows stronger in the hearts of the two, who nonetheless cannot admit their feelings toward each other.
When Tuptim, a Burmese girl given to the King by the potentate of Burma, stages a play based on the American anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she incurs the disapproval of the King. That disapproval turns to anger when Tuptim attempts to escape with her lover, a young scholar named Lun Tha.
The King threatens Tuptim with severe punishment after she is caught but is startled when he is reprimanded publicly by Anna. The world is changing too quickly for the King and he may not be able to adjust in time.
Highlights: A superior rendition of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical,The King and I, currently is gracing the stage at the Fox Theatre. This touring presentation directed impeccably by Bartlett Sher makes clear how it won the Tony Award for Best Revival in 2015, soaring on its stellar acting, lush singing and impressive choreography.
Other Info: The original Broadway production of The King and I opened in 1951 and ran for nearly three years and 1,250 performances, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actress for Gertrude Lawrence and Best Supporting Actor for a relatively unknown actor/director named Yul Brynner. It featured music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon, which in turn was inspired by Leonowens’ memoir.
Among other productions and revivals, a revised version opened on Broadway in 1996, winning the Tony Award for Best Revival. In 2015 a Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Sher won four Tony Awards, once again winning for Best Revival of a Musical.
There is much to admire in Sher’s version. Jose Llana takes ownership of the role of the King, one indelibly associated with Brynner in the minds of patrons north of 50. Llana’s King is virile, robust and commanding but also inquisitive and a tad vulnerable, too, traits which make his character more endearing. Additionally, Llana has a good touch with the King’s lighter lines, while also displaying a charming chemistry with Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna.
Kelly possesses a clear, invigorating voice which she uses to great effect on familiar tunes such as I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and especially Hello, Young Lovers, in which she recalls her own happy times with her late husband. She also brings a feisty verve to Anna.
Llana and Kelly verbally parry and thrust enchantingly throughout the show’s two acts and nearly three hours of performance, highlighted by a scene where Anna begrudgingly attempts to stay “beneath” the king no matter how low his posture. It’s an amusing and endearing scene capsulizing the battle of their two minds and spirits.
There’s very strong supporting work by Q Lim as the ill-fated Tuptim, who displays a remarkable soprano on the duet, We Kiss in a Shadow, with the capable Kavin Panmeechao as her lover, Lun Tha. Joan Almedilla delivers an excellent portrayal of Lady Thiang, chief wife of the King and keen observer of all that goes on around her.
Anthony Chan delights as the King’s heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, and Brian Rivera offers a steady presence as the sage prime minister, Kralahome. Rhyees Stump does well as Anna’s son Louis and Patrick Boll doubles as an English captain and also as Anna’s former flame, diplomat Edward Ramsey. Darren Lee and Keira Belle Young contribute as the King’s assistant Phra Alack and Anna’s prize pupil, Princess Ying Yaowalak, respectively.
Especially magnificent is the second-act ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins and here expertly adapted by Christopher Gattelli, whose stylized movements match the haunting chords of Rodgers’ music.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes are resplendent, Ted Sperling’s music supervision is exquisite and the sets designed by Michael Yeargan are a joy unto themselves, as columns cascade down from the rafters and billowing curtains serve as pivot points for the performers in sundry scenes, accentuating especially the Shall We Dance? number featuring Kelly and Llana, all lit precisely by Donald Holder.
Sher’s direction is focused and crystalline clear throughout, while his fluid pacing moves the show briskly forward as it maintains audience interest. There’s little to quibble with and much to admire in this exhilarating take on an old story.
Musical: The King and I
Group: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand
Dates: Through December 10
Tickets: From $40-$115; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy