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The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based Upon the Novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreographed by Christopher Gatelli, Based on the Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins
The Fox Theatre
November 28, 2017

Jose Llana, Laura Michelle Kelly
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The King and I National Tour

My first reaction when the curtain opened on the national touring production of The King and I, currently playing at the Fox Theatre, was “wow!” Another example of director Bartlett Sher’s celebrated revivals of Broadway classics, this one is immediately impressive from a visual standpoint, even by marvelous coincidence looking like it was designed for the Fox. The visuals are certainly impressive, but what’s even more impressive is the strong cast and cohesive, thoughtful direction for which Sher is well-known.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Sher’s revivals is that they are at once faithful to the source material and also updated, to a degree, in terms of focus. Sher seems to try his best at not re-inventing classics, but rather presenting them in ways that make them more immediate and accessible for modern audiences, which makes sense since a lot of these well-known shows have become somewhat (or sometimes very) dated in terms of their perspective. In the revivals, though, the source material has been updated more in terms of subtext and characterization than in the actual script. That’s the case with The King and I, particularly. The story is the familiar one–of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly), who travels to Bangkok in the 1860s to teach the many children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). The relationship of Anna and the King is a complex one, starting with suspicion and even animosity and then growing into a respectful friendship with hints of something more, but not a romance in the conventional sense. There are also poignant subplots involving secret lovers Tuptim (Q Lim) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), who want to be together but can’t because she’s been given as a “present” to the King; and also the struggles of Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) to learn about the responsibilities and burdens of leadership as he prepares to someday become King. The story is all here, as are the familiar classic songs such as “Getting to Know You”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “We Kiss in a Shadow”, and “Shall We Dance”. The script is the same, as well, but under Sher’s direction, the focus has been shifted somewhat, making the show appear more critical of the concept of colonialism and “westernization” than previous productions. The central figure is Anna, as always, and her sparring with the King is a highlight of the production, but this production also draws a lot more focus on the King’s court, particularly his head wife Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) and his chief official Kralahome (Brian Rivera) than previous productions I have seen. It’s an intriguing, compelling, and thoroughly cohesive production that brings a lot of insight to the source material that may not have been as apparent in earlier productions.

Casting-wise, as far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve seen the same performers play the same roles in two entirely different productions of the same show. Both Kelly and Almedilla played these roles in the Muny’s excellent production in 2012, but now under Sher’s direction, both excel in this newer vision of the show. In fact, I would say these two are the stand-out performers here, from Kelly’s sure, steely but almost understated determination and strong vocals as Anna to Almedilla’s brilliantly measured, authoritative and also beautifully sung turn as Lady Thiang. Llana is also excellent as the King, coming across as more youthful than other performances of this role that I have seen, and displaying a strong presence and combative, affectionate chemistry with Kelly’s Anna. Lim is also impressive, especially vocally, as Tuptim, and Chan is especially convincing in his portrayal of Prince Chulalongkorn, as is Rivera as Kralahome. It’s a strong cast all-around, with an especially impressive ensemble and strong dancing in various moments, especially in the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet sequence.

Visually, the show is stunning, and it fits very well into the ornate Fox Theatre. Even before the curtain opens, the color scheme and design elements look almost like they were designed for this venue. Then, the curtain does open, and the audience is transported to 19th Century Bangkok, vividly realized by Michael Yeargan’s detailed sets and Donald Holders truly dazzling, emotive lighting. There are also superb period-specific costumes by Catherine Zuber and wig and hair designs by Tom Watson, helping to further transport the audience to a different time and place. The staging is at once “big” and “small” in the sense that it’s expansive but also presented at an accessible scale, bringing the audience into the story with a degree of somewhat stylized realism.

The King and I at the Fox is a memorable presentation of the celebrated Lincoln Center revival directed by one of Broadway’s most lauded directors. Although there are still some dated elements, this production is presented with a sense of immediacy and even cultural critique that I hadn’t seen before in performances of this show. It’s a truly memorable production, with a great cast. It’s worth checking out while it’s in town.

Joan Almedilla
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The King and I National Tour

The national tour of The King and I is running at the Fox Theatre until December 10, 2017.

 

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The Bridges of Madison County
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Based the Novel by Robert James Waller
Original Direction by Bartlett Sher, Direction Recreated by Tyne Rafaeli
The Fox Theatre
April 5, 2016

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The Bridges of Madison County was one of those books that everyone seemed to be reading in the early 1990’s. It has since become a well-known film, and now it’s a musical, featuring a score by one of the most celebrated modern composers, Jason Robert Brown. And the score is gorgeous, as are the production values. Unfortunately, despite a good cast, the story isn’t quite as gorgeous.

Although this was a best-selling book and a popular movie, I haven’t read the book and this version is the first adaptation I’ve seen. It tells the story of a lonely Italian woman, Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) who married an American soldier after World War II and moved with him to his farm in Iowa. After years of living with Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) and raising their now-teenage children Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (John Campione), Francesca is bored with farm life and misses Italy. When Bud and the kids take a trip to a state fair to show off Carolyn’s prize steer, Francesca stays home, where she soon meets traveling photographer Robert Kincaid (Andrew Samonsky), who has been sent by National Geographic  to take pictures of the area’s famous covered bridges. He stops at Francesca’s to ask for directions to the last bridge, and the two are soon intrigued by one another, as Robert has recently traveled to Francesca’s hometown of Naples and his more worldly, less conventional outlook on life intrigues her. They begin an affair, despite the frequent calls from Bud and Francesca’s neighbor and friend Marge (Mary Callanan) to check up on her.

This affair is apparently supposed to be life-changing for both Francesca and Robert, but the way it’s presented in this musical, I don’t really buy it. Everything moves too quickly and isn’t given the proper resonance. I keep finding myself sympathizing with the nice-but-boring Bud, and with his and Francesca’s kids, who have no clue what’s going on back home while they have their own “adventures” at the fair that don’t have much bearing on the rest of the story. The music is gorgeous, representing a variety of styles from a more classical sound to country and folk, and there are some stand-out songs, some with clever settings like Marge standing in for a radio singer singing “Get Closer” as Robert and Francesca dance. There’s also the haunting “Who You Are and Who We Want to Be” and Robert’s memorable “It All Fades Away”, but despite the beautiful music, the story around the songs reads as kind of shallow, with the connection between Francesca and Robert seeming little more than superficial, and the story’s continuation after the key events making the supposedly torrid affair seem kind of pointless.

The show looks great, as well. With a positively stunning set design by Michael Yeargan, adapted for the tour by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams and beautifully realized lighting by Donald Holder and Michael Jones, the atmosphere of the sweeping farmlands of Iowa is well-embodied. There’s also excellent, well-suited costume design by Catherine Zuber that captures the style of the time period.

The cast for this show is also excellent, led by a top-notch performance by Stanley as the disillusioned Francesca. Her presence and strong voice help to make her character relatable despite the lack of chemistry with Samonsky’s nice-looking but somewhat bland Robert. The real stand-outs in this cast are the supporting performers, especially Callanan as the nosy but supportive neighbor Marge, and David Hess as her affable, loving husband Charlie. Houlahan and Campione are also excellent as Francesca’s children, the nervous but determined Carolyn and the initially rebellious but well-meaning Michael. Titmas is also fine in the somewhat flatly written role of Bud, and there’s a strong ensemble that fills out the cast, representing townspeople and various people from Francesca’s and Robert’s personal history.

The Bridges of Madison County is  a good-looking, great sounding show, but I wish it was more than that. It’s set up as a great love story but it doesn’t come across that way, especially with the lack of chemistry between the leads and the sense that most of the subplots are merely window-dressing for the unconvincing main event. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if the story is better told in novel form, but here it’s all kind of thin. Still, it’s Jason Robert Brown, so the music is wonderful, and the songs are well-sung.  There’s enough here for a reasonably interesting story, but I wish there had been more of a point to it all.

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky Photo by Matthew Murphy The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Bridges of Madison County National Tour

The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Fox Theatre until April 17, 2016.

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