Theater Review: THE KING AND I (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on December 16, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


It’s no puzzlement why The King and I is oft-revived. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s semi-historical domestic drama—the unlikely alliance between a Siamese monarch in the 1860s and a British governess/tutor—shows how history is all about people at pivotal points. Change comes from unexpected places in improbable ways. When it does, sometimes the most honest response is just a question in a polka: “Shall We Dance?” That famous crowd-pleasing song and moment, when an imperious King of Siam dances with a widowed English schoolteacher, is always pure enchantment. Bartlett Sher’s Broadway revival, now on its national tour, lacks the sumptuous reclamation and perfect casting of the 1996 revival with Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips, but still there are plenty of moments that are “Something Wonderful.”

Fortunately, the leads are awesome. Like the dairyman Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, the unnamed King (Jose Llana, at once likeable, gruff, immature, arrogant, funny and vulnerable) copes with a future that’s come today. He must reckon with Anna Leonowens (utterly charming Laura Michelle Kelly), a one-woman culture clash hired to teach his children, as well as with colonial threats to his Indochinese kingdom. More personally, the polygamous ruler’s autocratic control over his many wives and an equally fractious heir apparent (Anthony Chan) now seems a useless throwback to a tyranny the times won’t tolerate.

Faced with British designs on Siam (though, of course, the French would be the true nemesis), the King must persuade emissary Sir Edward Ramsey (Baylen Thomas) that he’s no “barbarian” by throwing a banquet and a ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Jerome Robbins’ delightful fusion of temple dancing and melodramatic excess, here gorgeously recreated by Christopher Gattelli). It buys time and, well, the rest is history.

The book is one of Hammerstein’s best: humorous, multifaceted, and political with non-explicit sexual tension. Still, it’s problematic. If for some The King and I is a grand night in the theater without being a soaring experience, you can look to the two characters in the subplot of Tuptim (Manna Nichols), one of the King’s concubines who pines for her true love, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), from whom she has been separated.

Unlike Lady Thiang (a compelling Joan Almedilla), the King’s number-one wife, who has obvious affection for her powerful husband, these younger characters—the Burmese slave and her secret lover—are under-characterized. Their two romantic duets—“We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”—are standalone numbers of such poignant, heart-wrenching, lilting beauty that I forget how much I’ve lost interest in this couple as soon as they stop singing. Both Nichols and Panmeechao sounded fine, but they didn’t make these roles multi-dimensional.

Still, even with a dated mindset, there is plenty of drama and oodles of pageantry provided by the pomp and circumstance of this royal court on the brink of major change. And there’s nothing bland about Sher’s staging: One of the main joys here is its delectable, character-driven humor; Sher is able to evince humor without upsetting the show’s sincerity.

photos by Matthew Murphy

The King and I
national tour
Hollywood Pantages
ends on January 21, 2017
tour continues throughout 2017
for cities and dates,
visit The King and I Tour

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