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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 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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