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The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography by Ralph Perkins

The Muny, St. Louis

August 6, 2012

The King and I is the classic musical loosely based on the  true story of Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly),  a widowed English schoolteacher who  was hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Kevin Gray) in the 1860s.   As the story is presented here, the King wants to “modernize” his country’s ways so as to have better diplomatic relations with Western countries and not get taken over by the British Empire, but he and Anna clash over cultural differences and issues like polygamy, use of authority and roles of women in society.  Over the course of the show, both Anna and the King learn to appreciate and respect one another in a gradually developing bond of real affection.  It’s a show that has been produced many times around the world, and the Muny delivers a thoroughly believable, strong production to finish off their truly wonderful 2012 season.

Personally, as a follower of the London theatre scene, it was great for me to hear that a bona fide West End star, Laura Michelle Kelly, was going to be playing Anna in this production. I had only seen some (excellent) promotional clips of her as Mary Poppins, but many of my UK friends spoke highly of her, so I was looking forward to seeing her in this production. I can happily say now that she more than lived up to the hype. Kelly is wonderful in this role. She possesses a strong, clear, powerful voice and plays Anna as strong and compassionate, and her stubbornness is a match to the King’s. Kelly is younger than the usual casting for this role but, at 31, is roughly the same age as the real Anna when she first came to Siam, and she brings a youthful energy to the role that is balanced by just the right amount of authority.  She shines in songs like “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” in which she indulges in an imaginary rant towards the King, as well as in gentler, moments like “Hello, Young Lovers” and especially its more melancholy reprise in the second act.  “Getting to Know You” is also a highlight, as Kelly is able to display a great sense of rapport with the children in her charge.

Kevin Gray as the King has a commanding presence. From his very first appearance onstage, just from the way he is standing, it’s obvious that he is King even though the emphasis of his portrayal is on his self- doubt as exemplified in his excellent song “Is a Puzzlement”.   Gray is at his best in his scenes with Kelly, where their mutual stubbornness comes into the forefront and the energy is palpable.  I like how the affection that builds between Anna and the King is not portrayed as a straightforward romance, as playing it as a romance would make this delightfully complex relationship too simple.  The truth is that these two, in this situation, would never have been able to have a true romance so rather than dwelling on what might have been, we are treated to what is actually there, which is a growing sense of mutual admiration with a hint of attraction that shows up in moments like the delightful “Shall We Dance”.  This is many-faceted relationship, also exemplified by the verbal sparring in “Song of the King”, and it is well-played by both Kelly and Gray.

The rest of the players in this production are excellent as well. Stephanie Park and Joshua Dela Cruz are convincing as the star-crossed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, and their second act duet “I Have Dreamed” is a stand-out moment in the show. Park also excellently narrates the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” and makes the parallels in that story with what is going on in her character’s own life readily apparent.  Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, also puts in a strong performance as somewhat of an emotional anchor in the story, especially in her beautifully sung number “Something Wonderful”.  There is also a great children’s ensemble, and the young actors playing Anna’s son Louis (Matt Johnson) and Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Nick Boivin) do a fine job as well.

In addition to the strong performances, this is a great looking show as well, with richly detailed period costumes, and sets that appropriately fill the large Muny stage and set the atmosphere for the show, such as the simple and elegant columned throne room of the King.  The dance numbers such as “Shall We Dance” and the visually striking ballet sequence are very well executed, and lend to the overall charm of the production.

This thoroughly entertaining production closes out a game-changing 2012 season for the Muny.  It’s  hands-down the best season I’ve seen in the eight years I’ve been attending. This season also bodes well for future seasons of the Muny.  Past seasons have been more erratic, but this one was consistent and raised the level of performance at the venue.  I look forward to seeing what they do next season.

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