Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” debuted on Broadway close to seven decades ago. But in its piercing exploration of culture clash and colonialism, its shrewd consideration of leadership and its insightful look at the tension between men and women, tradition and modernity and the scientific and spiritual, it might very well have been written yesterday. And beyond this there are the essential matters of love, pride, legacy, reconciliation and death.
‘THE KING AND I’
When: Through July 9
Where: Oriental Theater, 24 W. Randolph
Tickets: $24 – $90
Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission
While all this might sound like far too much to address in any single musical, “The King and I” (based on Margaret Landon’s novel “Anna and the King of Siam”) unfolds in an ideally organic way, with a slew of distinctive characters; an exquisite mix of charm, humor and pain, and a glorious score that juxtaposes Eastern and Western motifs. And while the grand-scale national touring edition of the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theater revival is not perfect, it looks beautiful in the Oriental Theatre. And it features impressive performances by Jose Llana, who is reprising his Broadway turn as the King of Siam; by British actress Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna Leonowens, the worldly, strong-willed, proto-feminist Welsh schoolteacher hired to teach the King’s children, and by Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s favorite of his many wives, and mother of his successor, Prince Chulalongkorn (Marcus Shane).
Directed by Bartlett Sher, the production flows easily between dialogue and song, with the singers’ phrasing bringing a relaxed colloquial touch to the lyrics. Michael Yeargan’s elaborate set, lit by Donald Holder, includes everything from the prow of a ship to a giant golden Buddha (but too many between-scenes curtains). And Catherine Zuber’s lavish costumes are a fine mix of Victorian hoop skirts and traditional Thai silk tunics.
Occasional audio issues crop up, and the orchestra (particularly during the overture) can have a thin, somewhat distant sound. But putting many deft twists on the brilliant original concepts of Jerome Robbins, choreographer Christopher Gattelli has beautifully captured the distinctive profile of flexed feet and gestural arms of classical Thai dance. And “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the elaborate second-act “narrated ballet” inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist classic, is an ideal rendering of her tale of an escaped slave, Eliza (Lamae Caparas), told in a marvelous East-meets-West way, and indicting the existence of slavery in both the U.S. and Siam.
That ballet is part of a grand evening of entertainment devised to convince visiting British diplomats that the King is not “a barbarian,” but an intensely sophisticated royal struggling to modernize his kingdom during the 1860s. And the relationship that develops between this immensely proud man, who has a particular fascination with President Lincoln, and the fiercely independent Anna, who only comes to understand him fully when it is too late, is one of the most eloquent metaphors for what can both unite and divide the nations of this world.
Llana is sensational, winningly capturing the King’s bristling, sardonic wit and curiosity, mischievous macho nature, potential for cruelty and fierce determination to resist Western imperialist domination.
Kelly brings a wonderfully natural, unaffected quality to the character of Anna, and with her warm, embracing voice puts a conversational spin on every lyric so that even such familiar songs as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers” feel fresh.
Almedilla’s portrayal of Lady Thiang — the woman who knows the King best, and adores and protects him in her firm but understated way — is superb, as is her rendering of “Something Wonderful,” a truly great love song.
There is something a bit too modern about the portrayals of the covert Burmese lovers, Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). But both actors possess strong voices, and Nichols’ narration of the “Uncle Thomas” ballet is ideal.
Solidly built Brian Rivera makes a fine Kralahome, the King’s protective prime minister possessed of a droll sense of humor. And such emblematic moments as “The March of Siamese Children” (with a hilarious bit for twin brothers) and “Shall We Dance,” the stage-circling, applause-generating polka for Anna and the King, are neatly realized.
But in many ways the show’s most important song is “A Puzzlement,” in which the King muses on the uncertainties and complex choices facing any leader. Recitation of its lyrics should be a required part of every inaugural speech for anyone assuming the presidency of the United States.