Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The King and I
National Tour
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Pass Over


Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana
Photo by Matthew Murphy
For so many years, The King and I was one of the old chestnuts musical theater fans thought they all knew, if not from the movie version then from summer stock, high school or community theater productions. Then Christopher Renshaw came along in the 1990s with a take that introduced the idea of sexual attraction between Welsh schoolteacher Anna and the King of Siam and made the physical brutality toward the slave Tuptim more graphic. Renshaw's production hit Broadway in 1996 and twenty years later Bartlett Sher took another pass at the classic for Lincoln Center Theatre. That production takes on, gently, the recent criticism that the piece is condescending to Asians in its exoticism of their culture and its infantilism of the women. Sher and his designers (Michael Yeargan for sets, Catherine Zuber for costumes) have toned down the opulence of the palace, and Sher adds plainly dressed commoners to the opening scene at the port of Bangkok. There's no getting away from the fact that the script makes jokes at the expense of the Siamese characters' limited knowledge of English and their limited understanding of Western science, but Sher doesn't exploit those textual elements.

Sher has significantly dialed back the sexual chemistry between Anna and the King as well. (Yes, the King keeps his shirt on in this staging, even when threatening to whip his rebellious slave/wife Tuptim.) Instead, Sher and his touring stars Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana display a growing respect and friendship based on their shared value of scientific thought and fact-based reasoning, even as they must each give up a little of their pride to accept the other. When they finally polka to "Shall We Dance?," it's not a capitulation to a sexual chemistry between them, but rather an acknowledgement of each other as friends and partners. Friends and teachers, really, to cite the line spoken by one of the king's children to Anna—a phrase that has been widely quoted as an inscription given to Stephen Sondheim by this musical's librettist Oscar Hammerstein II on Hammerstein's deathbed.

Kelly and Llana are both enormously appealing in their roles. The Englishwoman Kelly, who originated the title role of Mary Poppins in the Disney/Mackintosh London musical and reprised it on Broadway when she replaced Ashley Brown, has the charm and grace of that one-time Poppins Julie Andrews and a lilting soprano that brings the many standards like "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello Young Lovers," and "Getting to Know You" back to life. Llana, still boyish at age 41, is a self-aware king. Though the King keeps up the airs of superiority and infallibility that his subjects expect of their monarch, Llana shows the audience the King's inner thoughts—that he has enormous responsibilities that he is not entirely prepared to fulfill. Llana displays great comic skill in the way his King tries to keep up pretenses. (This is probably not a surprise to those who saw his Drama Desk Award winning performance in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which I missed.) I have followed his career for nearly 17 years, since he did The Ballad of Little Jo at Steppenwolf in 2000 and then again in the 2004 revisal of Flower Drum Song, but this was a new side of his skill for me. He's one of many actors who make a case for diverse casting: they're just too good to only play Asian-specified characters.

The supporting cast is generally strong as well. Manna Nichols as Tuptim shows off a soprano as lovely as Kelly's, and Joan Almedilla nails Lady Thiang's big number, "Something Wonderful." Understudy Marcus Shane does fine as Prince Chulalongkorn, despite looking four or five years older than the 15-year-old prince. Brian Rivera is authoritative without being over-the-top threatening as the Kralahome. The ensemble does a marvelous job dancing the choreography of Christopher Gattelli, based on the Jerome Robbins original. The only disappointment is that the 16-piece orchestration sounds a little thin and overly synthesized, especially in relation to memories of the fuller orchestra in the otherwise similarly sumptuous production of staged by Lyric Opera of Chicago last year.

There's no denying The King and I is a Euro-centric show, told from a colonialist perspective about colonial times. The nuanced performance by Llana as a king who realizes where his country has come from and where it must go to retain its independence goes a long way to address that. If one can get beyond the usual criticisms, there are other themes and characters to admire: a strong central female character who is an early feminist in a country where women had no standing (not to say they had it so great back in the Great Britain of 1862 either); the value of education and knowledge; and the development of friendship and respect through shared goals and listening to each other. "Friend and teacher," indeed. Can there be friendship without a willingness to learn from each other?

The King and I will play the Oriental; Theatre, 24 West Randolph, Chicago, through July 9, 2017. For tickets or other information, visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit thekinganditour.com.


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