A theatrically inclined, over the top leader is called upon the carpet by a strong, oppositional feminist for policies that are alternately deemed sexist, racist, tyrannical, oppressive, and a throwback to less enlightened times as their country struggles to enter a new era of ideology under the watchful eyes of the rest of the free world. No, this is not this week’s headline at The Huffington Post, but the underlying dilemma at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where the national tour of the Lincoln Center 2015 Tony Award-Winning production (Best Revival of a Musical, Best Leading Actress in a Musical, Best Featured Actress in a Musical, and Best Costume Design) of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King & I is currently playing, again painstakingly directed by Tony Award-Winning Director Bartlett Sher. From the moment the National Symphony Orchestra strikes the first rich chords of the overture (one of the best ever composed for stage), we are readily swept away on an opulent journey through the grandeur of the 19th Century Orient.
Progressively decades ahead of its time when it first premiered on Broadway in 1951, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s definitive masterpiece features their most exotic locales, their most complex characters, their most exhilarating score, and their darkest and most complicated, multilayered storytelling of their legacy. No dewy-eyed nuns, uppity farm girls, or cockeyed optimistic nurses in this musical. Based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna & the King of Siam (in turn derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens), it recounts the tale of Leonowens’ time serving as governess to the royal children of King Mongtuk of Siam during the early 1860s. The King wishes to recruit a British schoolteacher so his children can learn English and the most modern academics and philosophies of western culture, simultaneously educating himself to keep up to date with the ideals of the English-speaking world. Having been labeled a barbarian by Imperialists, he is very conscious that the civilized world not perceive him as such, which may threaten a British occupation of Siam (now Thailand). Along the way we are treated to a sumptuous, grand-scale production of one of the most beloved tales in musical theatre set to the lush score of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s greatest classic gems.
As the titular couple, Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana are alternately dynamic and blissful. They verbally play together like a seasoned comic team, yet when needed possess the fire and passion to make their disagreements compelling. For Kelly, an Olivier Award winner for playing Mary Poppins, the role of the clever governess with tricks up her sleeve to manipulate and heal the (far more extended) family here is further polished. Her crystalline voice showcases all the inherent beauty of Rodger’s rich track of standards composed for original star Gertrude Lawrence. Her Anna is strong and firm without ever being overbearing, and smartly learns early on how to temper her feminist ideology to encourage and allow the King to be the best and fairest he can be within the strictures of his limits. She is a solid presence around which to build the rest of the production, and an unusually stellar blessing for a touring production.
Llana has a rich history with the show, having made his Broadway debut as Lun Tha in the 1996 Donna Murphy/Lou Diamond Phillips revival, and takes that lifetime of experience to create the most dynamic and compelling King imaginable: alternately wise, passionate, fiery, and vulnerable. He is forceful with Anna without being abusive, and finds an agreed upon language between the two of them to concede to her superior knowledge for which she was hired without appearing weak or backward to his court or himself.
He also has the impossible job of performing under the formidable shadow of Yul Brynner, who defined the role on stage and screen. No worries, as Llana erases all comparisons by the time he introduces his many favored children. Where Brynner was a bombastic force of nature, Llana is much more nuanced in his approach. His King is a dichotomy of emotions, simultaneously honorable and tortured, and in the end his King is a much more accessible and relatable character. We see his humiliation at being deemed a barbarian by vicious Western outsiders. He is a proud leader who truly desires to be the best he can be. Yet when we see him with his family, he is a husband and a father; with Anna, he is a man. Llana also brings an unprecedented vocal prowess to the King’s musical soliloquy, “A Puzzlement”, culminating in an impressively belted showstopping finish.
But as perfect as Kelly and Llana are individually, their talents multiply when they share the stage. Their “he said/she said” arguments over her verbally contracted living quarters are bristlingly funny. Their scenes where he backdoor implores her advice are gentle and touching. Their first act finale battle of wills and domination are a perfect comic negotiation of their boundaries and their respective word. But their entire performance together comes to life in one specific moment. This critic has always attributed the strength of the story to being uniquely the greatest love story that can never happen. Yet with one gesture (masterfully accented in Rodgers’ orchestration) during the rousing eleven o’clock showstopper “Shall We Dance?”, Llana changes everything and gives a glimmer that it might. As the King asks Anna to teach him the polka she danced with the British guests, the number sweetly builds in exuberance until he notices that Anna, respectfully, is using a different hold than with the Englishmen. When his hand tentatively touches her body for the first time, they are instantly no longer employer and teacher, not Eastern and Western, or lord and adviser, but merely man and woman. We see the fireworks of which he has been so of proud outside, explode center stage in the palace. In one instant, the gesture is unnervingly sensual, intimidating, and honest, a moment of simultaneous longing and culmination of desire in the time of a fermata topped orchestral rest. This single moment of basic human connection as equals unleashes the entire unsaid story between the pair in this glorious refrain that is a masterpiece in both musical composition and lyrical storytelling.
The supporting cast is likewise as impressive. As the stand-in love story, Manna Nichols is wistfully beautiful as Tuptim, a princess sent as a “gift” (read “slave/wife/concubine”) from Burma for the King. Although considered the property of the King, she is secretly involved with a handsome student that has traveled along as her emissary, Lun Tha (a charismatic, romantic Kevin Panmeechao). Foolishly young and very dangerously in love, their first act duet “We Kiss in the Shadows” is a beautifully executed tease of all the wonders of their clandestine courtship. But the couple soars both vocally and emotionally in their second act rendezvous “I Have Dreamed”, perhaps Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most glorious duet in their entire repertoire, elevated by Nichols and Panmeechao’s sublime vocal blend.
As Head Wife Lady Thiang, Joan Almedillo, is a revelation of the character who has been traditionally just trotted out to nail the big first act closer. But in her hands, “Something Wonderful”, a powerful plea to Anna imploring her to understand the complexities of her husband, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arguably the most perfect song Rogers & Hammerstein ever composed, a deceptively simple melody sung over layers of increasingly lush chord progressions, Almedillo’s impassioned yet restrained delivery brings the oversized house down. But her Lady Thiang is not merely devoted. She is smart, soulful, honorable, and clearly demonstrates why she bears the distinction of Head Wife.
Providing the breathtaking visuals to frame these performances, Michael Yeargan’s set and Catherine Zuber’s costumes magically flesh out the opulence of the Orient, and Donald Holder’s lights bathe them all in sublime washes delineating different areas of the palatial grounds. Zuber’s dazzling designs incorporate all the elegance and exoticism of old Siam in a saturated palette of jewel toned silk and metallic embroidery. Her greatest achievements include the regal garments of the royal family in an intense array of fuchsia, lavender, burgundy, and royal blue, the exotic performance costumes for the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, and Anna’s exquisite lavender ball gown with crystal fringe for “Shall We Dance?”.
Yeargan’s set starts out with an impressive bang. When the billowing, metallic copper silk show curtain parts, we are accosted by a huge ship that crosses the stage transporting Anna and Louis to the new land. But rather than fulfill the urge to top this spectacle with an ornate, ostentatious palace, he pulls back in moderation so as not to overpower the show visually, and blends with Zuber’s creations and Holder’s lights to give a fluid and elegant complement that services as one visual. Comprised mostly of a series of burgundy pillars embossed with gold, a few moving set pieces, and the occasional not always necessary return of the copper curtain, in his artistic hands, less is definitely more. While admittedly this design worked much more effectively in the more intimate 3/4 thrust of the original Lincoln Center stage, even though it occasionally feels slight in the gigantic Kennedy Center Opera House proscenium, it was still the right call as not to detract from or upstage the show it is supposed to enhance.
Christopher Gattelli deftly bases his enthralling choreography on the original Asian inspired work of Jerome Robbins and produces an array of elegant and exotic specialty dances that utilize the fluidity and charm of his exceptionally accomplished dance corps to the fullest. He saves his best work for last in the dazzling “Small Cabin of Uncle Thomas” second act set piece, reinterpreting Uncle Tom’s Cabin with authentic Asian inspired dance and theatre, one of the most memorable highlights of the show.
But of all the various stars in this megawatt constellation, the most luminous of them all is director Bartlett Sher. Sher has lent an exceptionally fine touch and discriminating eye to blend the ideals of 165 year old events from a 65 year old story solidly into a modern perspective. Thankfully, he is visionary without being revisionist. Call out the blatant racism in South Pacific today. Play up the dark implications of the Nazi presence in The Sound of Music. Tear up the script and rewrite Oklahoma! from here to….well, Oklahoma. But The King & I has proven over time that it is virtually definitive and perfect as written. Wisely, instead of reinventing the show and abolishing the stereotypes for our ridiculously overly politically correct mores (yes, there are many boors today who ludicrously decry the portrayal of the Asian characters written by white men as racist and demeaning; they are pompous and misguided), his gift is finding the balance in the characters. especially in the King, who legitimately wants to be a better, wiser person, the leader his country would be proud of and the world would like to see.
As emphasized, this musical is not like any other Rogers & Hammerstein chestnut, and when it threatens to start out exactly like one, with Anna singing the standard syrupy ditty “I Whistle a Happy Tune” to her son, Louis (Graham Montgomery), on board their docking ship, Sher knocks the expectations down immediately. A typical saccharine anthem extolling a brave front in the face of fear, the song is traditionally performed on the deck of the ship when the King’s intimidating envoy arrives to escort them to the palace (cue the whistling). But after establishing the basics of the song, Sher displaces them ashore, thick in the midst of all the riff raff and seediness of the underbelly of dockside Bangkok, and the remaining verses up the ante on the lesson Anna is attempting to teach.
But Sher’s true gift is not only finding the balance and humanity of the characters in the script, he mines exponentially more not found anywhere on the pages. Watch the sublime subtleties he injects. During the sweetly comical “March of the Siamese Children”, each child not only has their own distinct personality (reflected in the face and reaction of Lady Thiang), but each of their individual mothers reacts distinctly too, some with pride, some with tenderness, some with embarrassment. In the second act set piece “The Small Cabin of Uncle Thomas”, watch the audience of the show within the show, and how they all react to the plot and themes of the presentation, from the British Ambassador viewing it on the surface as a cultural interpretation of the popular American novel, to the King weighing its abolitionist views on slavery, to Tuptim narrating with an emotional agenda of her own, to Anna who keeps all the secrets of all the other players and sees all of the above in addition to the performance. The secondary show is as emotionally compelling as the primary one is visually stunning. Most impressive is his interpretation of Lady Thiang, written as a supporting player to trot out whenever the wives need a communal voice. But Sher places her ever in the shadows. quietly observing and processing every event within the palace, calculating how to best use or conceal the information she knows to serve the greater good.
His decision to cast the next generation, Anna’s son Louis and Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) slightly older than usual gives them another layer of depth. This is particularly true of the Prince, to whom his future as King is not just a far off concept but an impending reality and he, like his father, understands the daunting realization that he is unprepared. It also makes their charming reprise of “A Puzzlement” not just two children who don’t comprehend the actions of adults, but two budding young men who not only understand but question them.
Sher’s sense of balance also extends to the technical aspects of the production, coordinating his designers so that the set and costumes, which both could tend to be overpowering, work with each other in style, palette, and design to provide a most effective background visual. In short, Sher has taken all the components provided him by the classic composers, his talented cast, and his innovative designers, and stylistically combined them all into a single piece of physically stunning and extremely moving work of art.
If there is one criticism of the production, it is only one of comparison. Having the honor to have seen the original Lincoln Center incarnation, this tour felt slightly slower paced, lacking an element of the vitality of the original. However this should not be attributed to the cast or the direction, but the dynamics of the space. The Lincoln Center theatre being a 3/4 thrust with stadium seating brought the performance much closer into the audience space, resulting in a more intimate connection with the actors. The adjustment to restage as a proscenium show in a house the magnitude of the Kennedy Center couldn’t help but reduce that intimacy. An adequate but not great sound system also didn’t help.
In today’s theatrical landscape, where such pop variety and innovative theatre is available, there is a new generation that abhors the classic Rogers & Hammerstein catalog on principle of being outdated, worn out, stock antiques. To this generation who believes that musical theatre began with Rent, or Wicked (or, heaven forbid, even Hamilton!), this critic implores those young viewers to go out on a limb and see this production which proves, in the right hands of a capable director like Sher and with the proper degree of talent demanded like Llana, Kelly, and company, there can be a richness and beauty in the classics that justify not only why they have held on so long and so well, but why musical theatre has evolved to the art form that can provide them a Dear Evan Hansen today. This national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King & I is Something Wonderful indeed.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission
The King and I, a Lincoln Center production, plays through August 20, 2017 in the Opera House of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.