Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

The King and I
National Tour
David Edward Hughes

Also see David's Interview with Jose Llana and Spencer's review of Mack and Mabel


Laura Michelle Kelly and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Lightning can strike twice, if the national touring company of the Lincoln Center revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's The King and I, directed by past Intiman Theatre artistic director Bartlett Sher, is any indication. Sher's lauded LCT South Pacific gave that venerable show new urgency. Although I have always thought The King and I was the superior, if not arguably the best show in the whole R&H canon, Sher and his collaborators have sparked some extra fireworks in this revival, which makes the back and forth between Welsh schoolteacher Mrs. Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam seem more fresh and topical than ever.

The widowed Anna and her precocious son Louis arrive in Bangkok, where she is to teach the King's many children from his many wives. Right from the start the prim but empowered Mrs. Anna and the proud yet open-minded monarch clash over the matter of housing her and Louis away from the palace, which the King denies promising. So won over are the children and wives of the King by this very single-minded but open-hearted lady, that the King grows fond of her, too. But two matters, a clandestine meeting between the King's concubine Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha and an impending visit from members of the English court who may want to make Siam a protectorate, rear their heads, The English visit and Tuptim's window to escape with her lover intersect, as Tuptim presents her version of the famed Harriet Beecher Stowe ant-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" danced by the dancers of the King's court. Tragedy and triumph, and a final understanding between its two headstrong leads prevail by show's end.

Musically, as it was written for the great star of the British and American stage Gertrude Lawrence, the role of Anna is greater represented in song than the King; but with the eternal shadow cast by original King Yul Brynner's galvanizing, star-making, Academy Award winning, and much toured performance, it is safe to say that neither role is a slam-dunk for any contemporary performer. Yet, Laura Michelle Kelly enters with a sprightly, just right approach to "I Whistle a Happy Tune"; makes rich choices in her beautiful remembrance of romance past in "Hello, Young Lovers"; allows Anna to win over the children and wives in "Getting to Know You"; and unleashes Anna's fury with the King in "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"

And Jose Llana (once Lun Tha in the Donna Murphy/Lou Diamond Phillips 1990s revival) is a commanding, petulant, sympathetic, aggravating and confused monarch. He casts a shadow of his own, to be approached with reverence by future stage Kings. Llana is endearing as the King's "A Puzzlement" points out his discomfort with and wanting to assimilate into a changing world. The pair sweep rhapsodically into "Shall We Dance?" with as much vigor as they might stepping into a newly minted musical, and in their closing moments show their audience why this romance of two strong minds is more gripping than any physical one.

Notable support comes particularly from Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, reinvented somewhat from the rather simple, smiling subservient first wife into one who not only deeply cares for her husband, but also has a fierce mother's love for her son, Crown Prince Chulalongkorn. Almedilla's "Something Wonderful" is a vocal standout, and she centers the often-cut "Western People Funny" into a perceptive comic look into the Westerners' eyes from the Easterners they would makeover in their own images. Brian Rivera's Kralahome is portrayed with a lot more depth and dignity than others I have seen in this role. As Tuptim, Manna Nichols sings exquisitely in her solo "My Lord and Master" and her character has a fiery undercurrent underneath, while Kevin Panmeechao as Lun Tha does what he can with his underwritten character; but both do full justice to two other smash hits from this score, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." Played somewhat older than in past productions, Anthony Chan gets a really solid grip on Prince Chulalongkorn, so that his steps from maturing adolescent Prince to ascending King are clearly mapped out.

Choreographer Christopher Gatelli and associate choreographer Greg Zane keep the essence of the original Jerome Robbins "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet intact, but not embalmed. The dance company is par excellence, and a few moments of additional dance in the palace seemed to fit beautifully. Michael Yeargan's set designs are gorgeous, eye-catching yet never upstaging the performances, Donald Holder's lighting is similarly shimmeringly right, and Catherine Zuber's costumes nod to the expected yet possess their own magic.

With two of the Rodgers & Hamerstein masterworks under his belt, might we dare hope Sher will take on one of their more problematic shows like Allegro and work some wonders with it? The happy tune I am whistling just thinking of that is quite a hopeful one.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, through February 3, 2017, at the Paramount Theatre, 9th and Pine in Downtown Seattle. For more information go to www.stgpresents.org. or contact Seattle Theatre Group at 877-STG-4TIX (877-784-4849). For more information on the tour, visit thekinganditour.com.


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