Review: “The King and I”

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers Hammersteins The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

RECOMMENDED

Where: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.
When: through July 2
Tickets: $24-$90
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I never get tired of “The King and I” and probably never will. The 1951 musical by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics) is full of songs that have become classics, among them “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” I Have Dreamed,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Shall We Dance.” I always look forward to set pieces like “The March of the Siamese Children” with its super-cute kids and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet usually based on the original choreography of Jerome Robbins. And the story, drawn from Margaret Landon’s novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” which in turn derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, is a winner.

Leonowens, or “Mrs. Anna” as her students call her, was the youngish Welsh widow who came to Bangkok from Singapore in the early 1860s to be governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam. Hiring her was part of his drive to modernize his country, but in the musical, he remains torn between a desire to adopt Western ways and to maintain traditions as a strong ruler, a tension aptly expressed in “A Puzzlement.” His predicament and belief in male superiority fuel a contentious relationship with the proto-feminist Anna, though they gradually learn from each other and develop a mutual respect, even love.

The 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival now on tour at the Oriental Theatre isn’t revisionist and doesn’t take any big risks, but director Barlett Sher does tweak the material here and there, and the evening generally is enjoyable. Credit goes first to a terrific orchestra of mostly local musicians under conductor Gerald Steichen; they do the splendid score justice.

The staging starts off on a high note as an impressive wooden boat glides onto Michael Yeargan’s set bearing the nervous Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery), as well as Captain Orton (Baylen Thomas). From her first words, Kelly makes the role her own with a nuanced natural manner, quick wit, ability to rise to the occasion, and very good (if not stellar) voice. The opening segues smoothly into the scene on the dock, as the King’s Kralahome (Brian Rivera, a big, brawny, partially bare-chested fellow who looks more intimidating than he acts) meets Anna and insists on taking her back to the palace, though she wants the house the King promised her.

A house of her own becomes a running theme when she finally meets the King three weeks later, and Jose Llana’s performance is no match for Kelly’s. He looks the part in Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes (great all-around) but leans too heavily on shouting, impatient abruptness, erratic behavior, and a man-child demeanor. As a result, there isn’t any real chemistry between him and Kelly except for a smidgen when he puts his arm around her in “Shall We Dance” and in his death scene, when it’s really too late.

The King’s crisis—here clearly portrayed as a heart attack—is triggered by Anna calling him a “barbarian” (a criticism from Western nations he’s been trying to dispel) for whipping Tuptim (Manna Nichols), a present given to him by the King of Burma, when she tries to escape with her lover, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). A bolder than usual Tuptim, Nichols does a beautiful job of narrating her Uncle Thomas play and making her feelings about slavery clear, but she sometimes pushes too hard as a singer, and her duets with Panmeechao don’t soar like they should.

As Lady Thiang, the King’s number one wife, Joan Almedilla delivers the potentially show-stopping “Something Wonderful” with aplomb, but of all the Lady Thiang’s I’ve seen, she starts out with the most attitude, an almost palpable antipathy to Anna that at least dissipates a little as she sees how much the King needs the governess (even if we don’t). Marcus Shane played her son, Prince Chulalongkorn, on opening night and was downright hostile to the newcomer, more than mimicking his father. Shane is full grown, which works better in the final scene than at the beginning (the action takes place over a decade) but eliminates the need for double casting.

The ensemble of singers and dancers is first rate, as is Christopher Gattelli’s choreography. Some of the scenery—for the garden, for example—is a bit strange, maybe because of the mix of realistic and impressionistic. I also noticed a few blocking oddities and echo-y sound at times, but those are minor flaws. “The King and I” is well worth seeing, especially if you haven’t heard it live in some time.