“The King and I” at the Bushnell Transports You to Another World

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Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_0_edited
Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

When a spectacular Broadway revival goes on tour, the concern is always that the necessary adjustments in both cast size and staging to fit a variety of venues will diminish its effectiveness. Luckily the national tour of of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I Has been adapted brilliantly.

Yes, the opening scene is quite as specular on a proscenium stage, but it is effective. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage.  From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.

What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture.  We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.

For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.

She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter.  After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.

Two subplots figure prominently in the show.  The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.

The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire.  The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.

Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters.  Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life.  She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.

The King is equally complex.  He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking.  But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”

This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.

Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein.  His direction has produced many fine moments. I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna.  Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.

King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy - smaller_3_edited
Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao. Photo by Michael Murphy

Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?”  In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”  This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.

It is surprising how the changes in the cast have affected the production. In the revival at Lincoln Center, Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang dominated the stage. They overshadowed .Ken Wantanbe, as the King.

In this production, it is the reverse. Jose Llana – who took over the role of the King on Broadway dominates the stage. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person.  He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality.  The one criticsm is that perhaps he overplays some of the humor in the role, appearing at times like a schoolboy pleased with his own jokes.

The other standout is Manna Nichols as Tuptin. When she is on stage, it is difficult to take your eyes off of her. Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna is good – she has a nice voice and inhabits the role, but she doesn’t bring it totally to live. You don’t feel the emotions. This is especially obvious at the ending which lacks the emotional punch it needs.

Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang has a somewhat similar problem. Professional and very good, but lacking one thing.

For a national tour, the entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.

Choreographer Christopher Gatelli has adapted and modified the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

The orchestra is larger than normal on tour and while the cast is reduced in size, only occasionally is it noticeable.

It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should see this production at the Bushnell through June 4. Tickets are available at Bushnell..

King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited
Photo by Michael Murphy

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