‘The King and I’
Through Aug. 20
The Kennedy Center
As curtains part and the prow of an enormous wooden ship glides to the edge of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage, it’s immediately evident that this isn’t the average national tour. Director Bartlett Sher has ensured that Lincoln Center’s 2015 Tony Award-winning revival of “The King and I” lives on as an exciting road show.
The ship’s cargo in the person of luminous Laura Michelle Kelly as British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens further confirms Sher’s intentions. Kelly and the other talented principals — all great singers — lend an operatic intensity to composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein’s magical score. Intelligently and beautifully realized sets by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber’s sumptuous costumes up the quality quotient.
Kelly’s Anna is plucky rather than prim, resolute yet compassionate and willing to stand up to the King on issues of integrity and fairness. And the King of Siam played by out actor Jose Llana makes for the perfect counterpart playing the monarch as hammy, sarcastic and impossibly arrogant, but also compellingly relays the complicated inner life of a monarch facing change.
The time is 1862. Anna and her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) have come to Siam where she will instruct the King’s children in English, some science and aspects of Western culture. A daughter of the British Empire who has lived in the East since she was 15, Anna isn’t scared of new experience; still, the King’s violent secret police and half-naked emissary leave her a tad unnerved. But she doesn’t show it. Instead she breaks into “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” the first of many familiar songs.
Custom dictates that the King’s subjects (including his wives and many children) lie prostrate before him. Though Anna begrudgingly obliges, she is otherwise not subservient. Though they butt heads, they learn from each other. She provides the King with new catch phrase “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera,” and he impresses her. He shows her a ruler willing to improve. Mutual respect and a near-romance develop that manifests with “Shall We Dance?” a rousing waltz that here registers more playful than passionate.
Closely orbiting the despotic ruler are his number one wife Lady Thiang, played by Joan Almedilla who proves her husband’s greatest champion with the beautifully sung “Something Wonderful,” the aloof but thoughtful Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan); and Kralahome (Brian Rivera), the King’s big bare-chested loyal advisor, and the other wives and children.
Also on hand is the King’s concubine Tumptim (Manna Nichols), a gift from the King of Burma. Tumptim is the dangerously in love with the Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), the envoy who delivered her from Burma. It’s a potentially steamy subplot that in this case doesn’t give much heat. But it does instigate a climatic disagreement between Anna and the King.
There are some politics in Hammerstein’s book. European powers are encroaching on the East. Cambodia has fallen to the French. Word has gotten to Queen Victoria that the King of Siam is a barbarian. To counteract that claim, the King with Anna’s help seek to impress a visiting party of British diplomats:
That means insisting the wives must trade their sumptuous sleek silks for more European voluminous skirts. Dismayed by their unwieldy new getups, the court ladies take a nice jab at the West with “Western People Funny.” The British guests are presented a stunningly executed Balinese ballet based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which includes Jerome Robbins’ original choreography from the 1951 Broadway smash hit production that famously starred Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence.
Ultimately the star of “The King and I” is the score. And here it’s served incredibly well.