The King and I
At the Oriental Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –The luckiest spectators attending “The King and I” touring production at the Oriental are the people who have never seen the show before. They are spared the countless productions that fed us a condescending story that veered toward racism. The production at the Oriental doesn’t work out all the kinks in the book, but director Bartlett Sher’s insightful staging puts the narrative on a perceptive dramatic footing that fans of the musical will find a revelation.
“The King and I” is the Rodgers and Hammerstein adaptation of the novel “Anna and the King of Siam.” The musical tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a widowed British governess who comes to Bangkok in Siam in 1861 with her young son to take the position of private tutor to the Siamese king’s dozens of children. The story rapidly turns into a clash of temperaments between the strong-willed western Anna and the dictatorial Asian king, and by extension a clash of cultures between East and West.
The story gave Rodgers and Hammerstein a platform on which they composed one of their most glorious scores. None of their classic musicals assayed out to as many bona fide hits as we hear in “The King and I.” The Hall of Fame numbers include “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.” These songs and others are not only stand-alone masterpieces they skillfully illuminate character and dramatic situations. The 19th century Bangkok location opened the door for a heavy dose of Eastern exoticism, making the production’s color and spectacle a stirring visual experience.
There has never been a problem with the music and pageantry of “The King and I.” But the show, which reflects colonial attitudes of a bygone era, takes a distinctly Western imperialist approach that comes across as embarrassingly smug. The king lapses into a comic character speaking pidgin English who must be shrewdly guided by Anna’s clearly superior occidental ways.
For years, the patronizing book has been the price the audience pays to hear all those wonderful songs and watch all that spectacular pageantry. Enter Sher, who has become an acclaimed figure in our national theater known for his ability to refurbish classics to bring them into the new millennium, notably his enhancement of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “South Pacific.”
Sher has rethought the basic sensibility of “The King and I,” leveling the playing field between East and West. He has established the king (superbly played by Jose Llana) as a three-dimensional figure who has his humorous moments, mostly knowingly, but carries a mantle of royal authority and political awareness. His king is domineering, but under Siam’s strict monarchy, domination is demanded from a leader who is responsible for his country’s well being. The king is surrounded by avaricious enemies who want to “protect” him for their own greedy motives. Plus he lives in an age of scientific turbulence that assaults the gates of centuries of Siamese social and religious tradition.
Facing him across the cultural chasm is Anna, and much of the storyline portrays how the pair gradually comes to a respectful meeting of the minds. There is a hint of erotic frisson, implied in he action, between the two toward the end of the play that I never felt was justified but at least in the Sher version isn’t intrusive. Much credit goes to Laura Michelle Kelly, simply the best Anna I have ever seen or heard. She sings with bell-like clarity and expression and her acting is convincingly dramatic or comic as the occasion requires. Kelly’s Anna is one feisty lady, a woman trying to make her way in an exotic foreign land, raising a son as a single mother in an intimidating environment. Anna is not one of those simpering subservient Victorian maidens. She’s a woman driven by fierce feminist ideals with the bravery to stand up to a king whose views of the inferiority of women reflect the society he rules.
Sher has also enhanced a subplot involving a young woman named Tuptim imported against her will as a gift for the king from a neighboring potentate. Tuptim is thus separated from her true love, a young countryman named Lun Tha. Before seeing this revival, I considered the Tuptim-Lun Tha romance a minor add-on to the main story to add a bit of melodramatic tragedy to the narrative and allow the pair to sing two of the show’s best numbers, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” Sher has strengthened their tragic tale, especially the character of Tuptim as played with considerable power by Manna Nichols. Tuptim’s silent and bitter recognition near the end of the play that her love affair has been exposed and destroyed is one of the show’s most powerful dramatic moments.
There is also a superior dramatic and vocal performance by Joan Almedilla as the king’s chief wife, Lady Thiang. Her rendition of “Something Wonderful,” a hymn to the king, imperfections and all, is the musical highlight of the evening and one of the most incisive and moving songs in the entire Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. Grant Montgomery as Anna’s son Louis and Marcus Shane as Prince Chulalongkorn, the king’s oldest son and heir, deliver sturdy supporting performances.
The production has gathred an ensemble of three dozen performers, each one seemingly etched with his or her own personal character traits. The king’s children blessedly are cute without being cutesy and every actor on the Siamese side of the action looks authentic.
Dance plays a particularly important role in the production, with Christopher Gattelli inspired throughout evening by the original Jerome Robbins choreography. The great ballet set piece “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” relies more on dancing than spectacle, which is fine. I was a little disappointed in “The March of the Siamese Children”. It was charming but the music never built to a climax and the number ends abruptly. Still, the composition is a masterwork that I’ll take any day over Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Michael Yeargan’s set designs beautifully recreates the almost Arabian Nights world of 19th century Bangkok., abetted by Catherine Zuber’s costumes. This is a road show that does not deliver its product on the cheap. Props also to Donald Holder’s lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound plan. I never saw the originating Lincoln Center staging in New York City but the one at the Oriental Theatre does not short change the audience on splendor, creativity, or performing talent.
We had heard in advance that the Bartlett Sher revival would show us a “The King and I” with a freshness and intelligence that gives the vehicle a virtual makeover. And so it does, without any deconstructing that violates what is brilliant in the Rodgers and Hammerstein original. It’s not a new version, just better, right down to the king’s death scene that ends the show. It’s a manipulatively emotional moment I knew was coming, and as usual, I choked up.
-The show gets a rating of 31/2 stars-
“The King and I” runs through July 2 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $24 to $90. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
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