Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The King and I tells the story of British school teacher Anna Leonowens, who comes to Siam in the early 1860s to teach the children of the king. Both the King of Siam and Anna are strong willed personalities and often disagree, but also manage to teach each other a few things along the way. The 1951 musical is based on a 1944 novel, "Anna and the King of Siam," by Margaret Landon, which itself was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens.
The book by Hammerstein contains tension, romance, humor, and social commentary, all resulting from the culture clash that happens when Western and Eastern worlds collide. The story addresses issues about the power of women, isolationism, and economic inequality which are as applicable today as they were in 1951. The musical, at nearly three hours in length, does feel a bit padded, mostly from a long internal performance piece during act two, but it's never boring.
The score features the duo's typically marvelous blend of witty and efficient lyrics coupled with lovely and befitting music. Classic numbers include "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting To Know You," "Something Wonderful" (a song by the king's primary wife about her husband's strengths despite many weaknesses), and "Shall We Dance?"
Director Bartlett Sher seems to be Broadway's go-to guy for leading revivals these days, with a brand new production of My Fair Lady on Broadway this season, and also recent Broadway revivals of South Pacific and Fiddler On the Roof (in addition to some original shows). Mr. Sher emphasizes the relationships within the piece, brings an intimacy to the piece despite its grand scale, and handles potentially difficult transitions smoothly. Christopher Gattelli's athletic and Asian-inspired dances are based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins. Gerald Steichen leads a talented orchestra comprised of both touring and local musicians.
The tour boasts leads with many Broadway credits, and the entire cast is splendid. Elena Shaddow is an elegant and forthright Anna, sings with crystal clear vocals, and brings out many layers of the character. Jose Llana likewise provides excellent singing, and lands all of subtle humor of the regal King, employing many great non-verbals to convey the king's struggle to grow and apply wisdom even as he's stuck in his traditional, chauvinistic belief system. Joan Almedilla supplies the necessary dignity and serious demeanor as Lady Thiang, and shines vocally as well.
Providing worthwhile performances in supporting roles are Q Lim (Tuptim), Kavin Panmeechao (Lun Tha), Charlie Oh (Prince Chulalongkorn), Rhyees Stump (Louis), Brian Rivera (Kralahome), and Baylen Thomas (Capt. Orton, Sir Ramsey). The energetic and talented ensemble, which includes a number of children, provide graceful and focused support.
Michael Yeargan's sets are large, colorful, and wonderfully detailed, and the costumes by Catherine Zuber likewise benefit from a wide color palette and are both handsome and period appropriate. The lighting by Donald Holder is varied and adds to the atmosphere and tone of the piece.
Even though the setting of The King and I is more than 150 years ago, and the musical itself is sixty-seven years old, the quality of the writing and the universal emotions, situations and lessons make it a timeless classic. This beautifully designed, crafted, and performed production is one likely to please theatergoers here and in other cities on the tour.
The King and I, through April 22, 2018, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets, call 800-294-1816. Visit thekinganditour.com for more information on the tour.