Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
The King and I
Also see Fred's review of Heartbreak House
Award winning set designer Michael Yeargan (whose work appeared recently at Long Wharf Theatre) opens up the evening as a ship glides downstage nearly to the audience. Behind it, skies are a deep, almost burnt orange. The scene is indelibly etched within the context of Yeargan's set and Donald Holder's lighting. Throughout, Catherine Zuber's costuming, accenting the early 1860s in Asia, is a highlight.
Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) is a widowed British schoolteacher who arrives with her son in Bangkok, Siam. The King of Siam (Jose Llana) has brought her to instruct children and acquaint all, including an array of his wives and children, in the mores of the Western world. Not surprisingly, Anna's thoughts clash with local customs during this time period in the Orient. Although the King professes interest in other ideas, he certainly is willing to have the exceptionally striking young woman from Burma, Tuptim (Manna Nichols), as his slave girl. She and the man who accompanies her, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), are sure in their love for one another.
As the plot evolves, Anna insists that she needs a house of her own. That might eventually happen and, in the meantime, she teaches the children who learn of other ways to live. She is initially curious about if not attracted to the King, but he is arrogant, steadfast, and a poor listener. Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) is the first wife of the King and she persuades Anna that the man benefits from Anna's presence.
During the second portion of the play, it becomes evident that Anna and the King enjoy more than a mutual passing fancy. That is interrupted when Tuptim and Lun Tha attempt to flee the country. As King of Siam, he loses the humanized self Anna has encouraged and becomes barbaric. The complexity of a man wrestling with new notions of compassion versus the rigid, authoritarian values he has previously learned becomes impossibly trying. Anna, set upon departure from Siam, experiences revelation: her affection for the King.
On a certain level, the classic musical is about its songs and, given the superlative talents of the touring cast, their voices. Laura Michelle Kelly, as the leading lady, sets it off, with Graham Montgomery as her son Louis with the familiar "I Whistle a Happy Tune." Soon thereafter, Kelly has a sweet solo with "Hello, Young Lovers." Nichols as Tuptim and Panmeechao as Lun Tha combine on the wondrous duet "We Kiss in a Shadow." As Lady Thiang, Almedilla shines towards the end of the first act with "Something Wonderful."
One of the foremost numbers, midway through act two, is the ballet entitled "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." It tells a story, facilitated by Tuptim, of a slave who runs away. The theme and import speak volumes. Robbins and his innovative movement creations live on and on! "Shall We Dance?," which is performed by Anna and the King, is also distinctively vivacious.
The King and I is a tad lengthy, yet its rewards are plentiful. It first opened on Broadway in 1951 and its relevance, as we experience life and times in contemporary America, is ever noteworthy. For example, the King utters one line where he speaks of a plan to "build a wall around Siam." Really.
Kelly, Llana, Almedilla, and Nichols are all upper quality stars, and surrounding cast members excel. The musical of passion, politics, society, and personal relationships continues to thrive. Richard Rodgers' music and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II endure.
It would be unfair not to share one observation overheard during intermission in the lobby. "Well, he (Llana playing the King) doesn't look like Yul Brynner," said an anonymous theatergoer. Ah hathis does not diminish the enthralling theater experience.
The King and I continues at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, Connecticut through June 4th, 2017. For tickets, call (860) 987-5900 or visit bushnell.org. For more information on the tour, visit thekinganditour.com.