From the opening strains of its lush overture, The King and I (★★½) announces its commitment to pomp and pageantry. Currently filling the Kennedy Center Opera House, Lincoln Center Theater’s Tony-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical is cast with greater sensitivity towards verisimilitude than that original 1951 production.
But in every other sense, this story of the slaveholding king of Siam and the British governess who steals his heart is still the same old The King and I. Director Bartlett Sher’s sumptuous rendition is engineered to please both Rodgers & Hammerstein fans and musical theater traditionalists. It is not a destination for the artistically adventurous.
However, much of it is quite pleasing, starting with Laura Michelle Kelly’s performance as Anna Leonowens. The real-life Leonowens, an Englishwoman claiming to be Welsh, traveled in 1862 to Bangkok at the behest of King Mongkut, who sought a Western woman to instruct and raise his many royal children. Leonowens is depicted as refined yet headstrong, a widowed single mother who brings a bracing air of modernity — along with her precocious young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) — to the king’s regimented palace.
Kelly comports her Anna with the poise of an educated, well-mannered lady without ever seeming stuffy, and she delivers the show’s famous tunes in a warm, supple soprano that bears both humor and wisdom. The governess spends much of the story at odds with the proud, imperious King (Jose Llana), and with his first wife of a dozen, Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), and Kelly shores up Anna’s warmth and vulnerability with impressive backbone. She and the king bicker and negotiate with conviction.
Their budding romance, however, is rendered so chastely that any attraction barely registers. The love story between Anna and the King doesn’t engage dramatically so much as it simply plugs along, because that’s what it’s supposed to do. Llana is a convincing king, but not the most persuasive romantic lead. Instead, he leans into the comedy, which he plays broadly, though with an assured sense of where to find every joke and innuendo. A veteran of Sher’s Broadway production, Llana’s comfort in the King’s skin helps soften some of the character’s harder edges.
Intent on protecting his kingdom from colonial powers, the King is determined to project to the world an image of strength, stability, and enlightenment. Still, he considers women lesser creatures than men, and accepts from the King of Burma the gift of a slave girl, Tuptim (Manna Nichols), for whom freedom means joining her true love, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). Nichols positively shines as an unwavering, dulcet-voiced Tuptim. Unfortunately, as her paramour, Panmeechao’s nasal tone disrupts the harmonies of the lovers’ duets. His Lun Tha seems no match for the steely Tuptim.
On the other hand, as the King’s eldest son Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, Anthony Chan projects massive presence, as does Almedilla, as Lady Thiang, the kingdom’s de facto queen, who must keep organized a royal household, along with complex emotions and loyalties.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s presentation of human rights and gender dynamics might have seemed at least slightly progressive in 1951, but the social and cultural messages read as patronizing today. The piece uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin — re-imagined as “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet — to illustrate the inhumanity of enslavement, a move that, at best, risks appearing a bit trite. At worst, it exemplifies just how square The King and I can be — and sound. The arrangements of the waltz and ballad-heavy score don’t dance or flow with much verve, save for that of the classic “Shall We Dance.” Even the Uncle Tom ballet gasps for momentum.
It’s better to focus on the period romance and meaningful cultural exchange. Or, if that doesn’t work, just soak up the opulence. Sher’s staging deploys a few potent visual reveals, Catherine Zuber’s costumes are exquisite, and scenic designer Michael Yeargan’s sets accomplish much with plush, well-lit curtains and intricately decorated flying columns. The choreography, by Christopher Gattelli, based on Jerome Robbins’ dances for the ’51 original, beautifully adds ballet to the mix. If nothing else, this is a production that will dazzle with splendour, even if the underlying musical is showing its age.
The King and I runs to August 20 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $59 to $149. Call 202-467-4600, or visit kennedy-center.org.
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