Politics – it permeates every aspect of our lives. These days you can’t escape it anywhere – at work, the gym, social media – the world of politics is all-encompassing. I would like to think that when Rogers and Hammerstein wrote this musical they had no idea just how relevant it would be 66 years later. This production of The King and I – part of the U.S. Bank Broadway Series – is a wonderful revitalization of one of the duo’s most celebrated stories.
While the story of The King and I is multi-layered with sub-plots and even a play within a play, here are the broad strokes of the story to whet your appetite. Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly), a Welsh-born schoolteacher arrives in Siam at the behest of the King of Siam (Jose Llana) to educate his royal children, of which there are several. As Anna and her son Louis (Ryan Stout) patiently wait in their chambers, the King receives a gift from the King of Burma – a peasant girl named Tuptim (Q Lim) who will join his numerous other marriages.
While Anna is already upset with the King about not keeping his promise to give her a small house, she commences with her lessons for the children and their mothers as well. The King wants to modernize Siam and having a teacher from abroad will help his family open their minds. While Tuptim was a gift for the King, she has caught the favor Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), a local scholar. The lovers must keep their relationship a secret as Tuptim was promised to the King.
Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), the King’s head wife, runs a tight ship and nothing misses her eye. She tells Anna the King is concerned about his reputation as a barbarian, as Britain is threatening to take over the county as a protectorate. To this fact, a group from Britain is headed to the country and it is up to Anna and the royal family to portray the King for who he truly is: a strong, dominating leader, but certainly no barbarian.
The second half of the story attempts to portray the King as a cultured, fair-minded leader. The family produces a ballet based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s iconic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the show is stunning to watch, the British envoy is appeased by this display of culture and decides to leave the King in charge. But once the British are gone, the King’s rage rears its head at Tuptim for her rebellious nature.
Cultures collide as Anna begs the King to be merciful while the King resorts to his relentless ways. Tuptim is dispatched and Anna and the King are furious with each other. Several months pass as Anna waits for her chance to leave Siam. During this time, the King’s health deteriorates and his son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan), is forced to carry Siam into the future.
The charm of this story clearly lies in the dynamic between Anna and the King. Both are headstrong, clever, and unshakeable. Where the King is pompous, Anna is graceful; where the King is egotistical, Anna is humble. They balance each other out and a love – of sorts – emerges but not truly a romantic love. Their “love” is more of a deep respect and admiration for one another. It was charming to watch these two lively characters lock horns. While there is a number in the show called, “Shall We Dance?” these two characters were dancing from the first time they met.
With no intended snark, it was enjoyable to laugh at the King. His grandiose self-image made him the butt of several jokes – unbeknownst to him. It was interesting to watch the cast of characters manipulate the King through social graces and absolute obedience to get him to do their bidding. Lady Thiang made it apparent to Anna that you should never tell the king what you think, but rather make him think he thought of it all on his own – a very useful tactic. How you could not apply this to our own current administration is beyond me. It’s all about making the man in charge feel as if he is the one calling the shots when we all know it takes a village.
There are so many wonderful aspects of this production of which I could gush about for days. Let’s begin with the performances. Every actor in this production was simply magnificent. Llana as the King was domineering, charming, and an impressive theatrical force.
Kelly, as Anna, was a vision – both vocally and physically. The way she carried herself on stage was inspiring. Her posture was as perfect and as polished as her singing. Both Kelly and Q Lim, as Tuptim, stood out as vocal highlights of the night. When either one of these talented actresses performed, it was so moving it brought tears to my eyes. Both ladies had voices that transported me to another time and place. Voices of this quality are rare, and that alone should convince you to grab your tickets now.
Joan Almedilla, Anthony Chan, and Ryan Stout all turned in outstanding performances in their respective roles. Then there were the children (and their mothers) who gave such a heartfelt, genuine performance that it made my disdain for child actors completely disappear. In my opinion, this is such a special cast, they should record this score for posterity.
Then we move on to the visuals – mind-blowing, to say the least. Michael Yeargan’s sets were undeniably innovative. From the boat which took up most of the stage in the first scene to the constantly moving pillars, there was always something to gawk at and wonder how they make it all flow together. Additionally, Donald Holder’s lighting combined with Scott Lehrer’s masterful sound design gave the production depth and style in a very fashionable way.
Two of the technical aspects which got the highest marks were the costumes and the choreography. Catherine Zuber’s brilliant creations were breathtaking. Each of Anne’s voluminous gowns was dripping with elegance and style, and exquisitely designed. Zuber (and her crew) dressed each of the actors with an amazing sense of refinement and sophistication. I would shudder to think just how many costume changes this cast must endure, but trust me, each of the creations were superb.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography movements were dazzling. Thanks in part to the legendary score of the show, Gattelli impressed the crowd with seamless movements and trailblazing dance sequences. The combination of ballroom dancing around the perpetually moving pillars during, “Shall We Dance?” was a joy to watch. This is just one of the many highlights of the show not even to mention the complex ballet movements during “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”
From the overture (yes, I do love an overture) to the magnificent dancing, to the outstanding performances, this production of The King and I proves that you can take a show over six decades old and make it new, and fresh, and relevant as you still pay homage to the original idea. This isn’t just good theatre, people, it’s almost mythical. A feast for the eyes, the ears, and the heart, The King and I made the Fox Theatre much more fabulous. While this show may not have the standard happy ending, it sure made me whistle a happy tune. │ Jim Ryan
The King and I plays The Fabulous Fox Theatre through December 10th. For tickets and show times please visit www.fabulousfox.com.