BWW Review: The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts Asks the Musical Question, 'SHALL WE DANCE?'
And the answer is, most certainly, "Yes."
The beloved musical, THE KING AND I, by the equally beloved team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, opened on Tuesday to a near-capacity crowd ready to do just that.
The latest iteration of the production on tour is crafted with care and performed with verve. It's an "old-fashioned" Broadway staple, and it never wears out its welcome. It unabashedly tugs at the heartstrings, tickles the funny bone and jerks the tears, just as it did when it opened 66 years ago this month. Few musicals achieve this kind of longevity, and more than a few of those are from the pens of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
So let's get the PC issues out of the way. Frankly, I'm getting tired of addressing them, but to the extent they might be relevant, here they are:
THE KING AND I, both on the stage and on film, is banned in Thailand, the former Siam, to this day, on the grounds that it depicts the King of Siam, whose descendants still sit on the throne, disrespectfully. Only bootleg copies of the film are available there.
In addition, there are the usual racial and cultural stereotypes; although quite muted, they do exist if you look for them. The accusation that this particular writing team could be acting with prejudice is especially ironic, given that the pair had a highly principled sense of cultural and racial equality, as evidenced by their condemnation of racial prejudice in the song, "You Have to be Carefully Taught", from SOUTH PACIFIC.
Anna Leonowens, the "Anna" of the title, for five years tutor to the king's children, later wrote a book about her experiences in the court of Siam, in which she took quite a few liberties with the truth, painting herself as the heroine of the story, although her actual influence with the king and his policies was much more limited than her book would suggest. This is the book upon which THE KING AND I was based, so naturally, these misrepresentations, as well as some theatrical license, became part of the plot.
But if you are getting your cultural and geopolitical history from Broadway musicals, you are looking in the wrong place. And that includes HAMILTON.
A quick plot summary, in case you've never seen the show:
In 1862, widow Anna Leonowens arrives in Siam with her young son Louie, to begin work as teacher to the royal children of the King of Siam.
A series of misadventures and misunderstandings ensues, involving a promised house, a disdainful prince, an illicit romance between a girl of the harem, Tuptim and her lover, Lun Tha, and of course the imperious King himself. It all ends with her falling in love, or not, with the king. Sprinkled throughout are some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's best-loved songs, including "I Whistle a Happy Tune', "Hello, Young Lovers", "Getting to Know You", and "Shall We Dance?".
Now let's get to the show.
First of all, it's faithful to the original in both look and feel. Pared down a little for the purposes of touring and space, the sets manage to convey a sense of depth and grandeur, while requiring a minimum of time to change. The use of tall, movable columns, hung from the flies, helps the illusion of space and distance. An impressive statue of Buddha adds scale. The lighting is quite effective in creating a mood.
Costuming is both sumptuous and serviceable, from the Siamese court dress to the mid-19th century ridiculousness of Anna's hoop-skirted crinolines. The tour de force, of course, is Anna's over-the-top satin ball gown in the "Shall We Dance" scene. Usually said to weigh anywhere up to 70 lbs, it's a feat of engineering as well as fashion, and walking in it, much less doing the polka, is a skill to be admired.
The cast performs with energy and conviction.
Laura Michelle Kelly, as the purposeful Anna, carries the role with a charm of steel. She portrays Anna as a no-nonsense woman with her heart on her sleeve, resolutely standing up for herself and what she believes, while a pushover for romance. Her longing for it is almost palpable, as in her song, "Hello, Young Lovers", and it often leads to trouble. She sings with warmth and feeling.
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) portrays both a sensitive king trying not to show his sensitivity, and a proud man trying not to let his pride rule. It's a complicated act, often appearing to be a real jerk, when he's really not. This is played very effectively in his loving relationship with his children. The conflict is shown in his solo, "Is A Puzzlement", where he wrestles with what he knows and doesn't know in a clear, forceful voice. It defines the dichotomy of his personality.
Lady Tiang (Joan Almedilla), the long-suffering and devoted First Wife, and mother to the Crown Prince, displays a poignant sense of love and duty in the plaintive "Something Wonderful" as she explains to Anna her relationship with the king.
Anna's young son, Louie (Graham Montgomery) and the son of the King, Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) exchange a moment in a reprise of "It's A Puzzlement" where they decry the idea of adults not really knowing what they say they know.
For those who know the show, all this is leading up to the climax of the story, a glittering dinner for the European dignitaries and emissaries of England, on a fact-finding mission to determine whether the king is capable of ruling Siam.
There is an elaborate ballet entertainment, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas", Tuptim's interpretation of Uncle Tom's Cabin and its anti-slavery stance, performed beautifully by the dance ensemble, featuring Kelli Youngman as Little Eva and Michiko Takemasa as Eliza. Uncle Thomas (Amaya Braganza), and Topsy (Yuki Ozeki) dance their support.
Following the ballet is the scene everyone has been waiting for, the "Shall We Dance" polka between Anna and the King. Both comic and stunningly sensual at the same time, this dance, and its aftermath, defines the relationship between the two. The music, the choreography, the costumes, including the afore-mentioned marvelous dress, combine to make this moment one of the most memorable in the musical theater canon, and it did not disappoint.
A word about the cast in general. I marvel at the freshness and energy displayed by touring companies, traveling across the country for one-week stands, performing the same show night after night, giving it their all, as if it were the first time. They are all National Treasures, and deserve our admiration and respect. Think about that before you cheat them of their curtain calls by running for the parking garage. I know parking is a pain, but what's a few minutes, more or less, really? Give the performers their due.
THE KING AND I
March 14-19, 2017
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby, Houston
For tickets, hobby.centerhouston.net/tickets