Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
The King and I
The King and I focuses on Anna Leonowens (in this production the beautiful soprano Laura Michelle Kelly), a widowed school teacher from England who has come with her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) to Siam to teach the many children of the King, portrayed here by Broadway regular Jose Llana. It is the nineteenth century, and in the United States, Abraham Lincoln is sfighting a bloody civil war over slavery, while Great Britain is pursuing its imperialist agenda in the East, with Siam next on its list. The King of Siam, knowing of Britain's intent, hopes to educate and westernize his country to prove his country equal to England, and an English governess is key to that strategy, though he quickly finds out that he had no idea what he bargained for.
Though his intentions are honorable, the King has a difficult time squaring the traditions of his country with the more western ideas of the modern world. He is continually at odds with Anna over various issues, from slavery to the equality of women, yet with her help and guidance, he attempts what no other ruler before him was able to achieve: the preservation of control of his country in the face of imperialism. Comparisons to Beauty and the Beast aside, the relationship of the King with Anna is not a typical love story. Perhaps more akin to another classic, My Fair Lady, which followed on Broadway years after, this musical reaches a more complicated resolution than the two leads kissing and living happily ever after together.
As with any standard musical from the golden era of Broadway, there is a subplot and secondary love story. That plot is shared by the King's slave, Tuptim, performed here by the lovely Manna Nichols, and a commoner, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), and it ingeniously underscores the complicated politics and personal challenges of this time and placechallenges too complex to find a simple resolution in life or in this musical.
Bartlett Sher, who helmed the Tony-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific in 2008, has again given new life to a classic with some mild updates to the book. Though some of the changes in dialogue delve more deeply into the subject of imperialism, the book by Oscar Hammerstein II largely stands the test of time, with certain lines and staging that unfailingly provoke classic audience responses. Christopher Gattelli has done a superb job recreating the iconic choreography of original director/choreographer Jerome Robbins while putting his own stamp on the musical as well. Rodgers' music sounds as lush and beautiful as one could hope, thanks to the music direction of Ted Sperling. The Tony-winning costume design by Catherine Zuber does not disappoint, and set design by Michael Yeargan, though sparse, allows for more attention to be given to the actors rather than the ornamentation that sometimes dominates productions of this show.
As the King of Siam, Jose Llana adds a new dimension to a role given iconic embodiments by the likes of Yul Brynner and Lou Diamond Phillips. Mr. Llana brings a humanity and humor that isn't always apparent in portrayals of the King. As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly follows in the footsteps of many other extraordinary actors, trusting in the material to win the hearts of her audience.
A standout in this production is Lady Thiang, portrayed here by the riveting Joan Almedilla. While the head wife of the King is often somewhat two-dimensional, Ms. Almedilla's body language and facial expressions find a depth to her character which I haven't encountered before. The audience gets a better understanding of where Lady Thiang has been and why she has such devotion to her husband, and her eleven o'clock number, "Something Wonderful," moved me to tears.
With messages about equality for women, the dangers of totalitarianism, and the seeming inevitability of globalization, The King and I is as timely today as when it was first produced sixty-six years ago. Some world leaders today might do well to learn from the King of Siam that the one in power doesn't always have all the right answers and frequently needs the counsel of others. In these times we may very well wish to "Whistle a Happy Tune" and, like Miss Anna, try to get to know each other in spite of our differences.
The King and I is presented by SunTrust Broadway, Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham, NC 27701 through June 11th, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.DPACnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787. For more information on the tour, visit thekinganditour.com.
Music: Richard Rodgers