Story: In 1862, the king of Siam (modern-day Thailand) is interested in modernizing his nation. He enlists the aid of a Burmese contact to find a British woman who will teach his dozens of children the language of English as well as European customs. Anna Leonowens, widow of an English Army officer, accepts the position and moves to Siam with her son Louis on the conditions that she be paid for her work and that she be given a house in which to live, to which the king agrees.
Once at the Royal Palace, however, Anna learns that the king intends for them to live on the palace grounds. Thus begins a battle of wits and strong personalities between the iron-willed king and the fiercely independent Anna. Each of them slowly learns to live with and accept the weaknesses and differences of the other, even as a quiet but unspoken love develops between the polygamous monarch and the staunchly monogamist tutor.
Highlights: Based on a novel that in turn was derived from the real-life memoirs of Anna Leonowens, The King and I was transformed by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/author Oscar Hammerstein II into a monumental Broadway musical that was designed for legendary actress Gertrude Lawrence and that also made a star of little-known actor and TV director Yul Brynner. Since it debuted at The Muny in 1955 it has been produced there a jaw-dropping 12 times, including this finale to the 2012 season.
For this year’s effort, executive producer Mike Isaacson has enlisted the aid of director Rob Ruggiero, choreographer Ralph Perkins, scenic designer Michael Schweikardt and lighting designer John Lasiter, the team that collaborated earlier this year for The Rep’s stunning version of Sunday in the Park with George.
Other Info: Alas, while this production looks very smart and has considerable energy and enthusiasm, it still features the overly familiar book and a Western outlook that is quaint, to say the least, from a 21st century perspective. Yet, despite a mind-numbing dozen presentations at The Muny in just 58 years, a largely appreciative audience on opening night seemed to be enamored once again with the oft-told tale. Go figure.
Certainly, the performers as the two lead characters are fabulous. Kevin Gray, who portrayed The Engineer in The Muny’s stunning 2001 presentation of Miss Saigon, cuts an imposing figure as the powerful monarch. His king rules the kingdom as a benevolent monarch of sorts, as long as the people accede to his wishes. If they don’t, as his Burmese ‘present’ Tuptim learns when she tries to run away with a scholar named Lun Tha, they risk the wrath of the iron-fisted ruler.
Gray personifies a strong leader in his clipped speech, his sturdy gait and in the respect he demands from his wives, children and servants. Yet, he also shows the increased softening of the king in the presence of Anna, whom he both admires and rebukes for her lack of humility in his presence.
Laura Michelle Kelly possesses a splendid voice for warbling such classic tunes as Hello, Young Lovers and I Whistle a Happy Tune. Her Anna is self-assured in her dealings with the king’s children, his ‘first wife’ and prime minister, and unabashed in her criticism’s of her employer’s harsh ways, but still able to recognize and applaud his virtues as well.
Joan Almedilla is steady and reassuring as Lady Thiang, the wife of wives of the king, while Alan Ariano epitomizes the steadfast qualities of his prime minister, the Kralahome. Joshua Dela Cruz and Stephanie Park make for a fetching and affecting couple as star-crossed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim.
While Hammerstein’s book may feel dated, Rodgers’ lovely melodies still are pleasing to the ear, including such standards as Shall We Dance? and We Kiss in a Shadow. The second-act ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, remains captivating in its beauty, originally conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins and here re-enacted magically by Perkins with a sizable number of The Muny’s ensemble and Youth Ensemble.
The sumptuous costumes are courtesy of Atlanta Theater of the Stars, while Jason Krueger provides the complementary sound design and Brad Haak offers stalwart musical direction of The Muny orchestra. Lasiter’s lighting bathes Schweikardt’s set design, which is replete with a background of Bangkok and a series of columns and Oriental motifs in the Royal Palace.
Ruggiero directs it all with polish and aplomb. Still, let’s hope The Muny waits a long, long time before bringing The King and I back for yet another showing. In summary, however, it’s been an exhilarating opening season for Isaacson, who deserves plenty of credit for his selections.
Musical: The King and I
Group: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: August 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Tickets: From free to $70; contact 534-1111 or www.metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry/The Muny