BWW Review: THE KING AND I Evokes Something Wonderful
A journey to the Far East reveals extravagant sets, ornate costumes, and symphonic melodies in The King and I's return to Pittsburgh. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic has been delighting audiences for over half a century with the jokes that remain funny, orchestrations that endure beautifully, and themes that resonate contemporarily.
A schoolteacher named Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her son named Louis (Graham Montgomery) travel to 1860s Siam, where Anna has been hired by the King (Jose Llana) to teach English. She wages a battle with the King, resolutely and persistently asking for her previously agreed upon house.
Bewildered by what he perceives to be arrogance, the misogynistic King quarrels with Anna over everything from her title to her mannerism. Having been raised in English society, Anna stands up for herself on all fronts. She also soon realizes that, although she was hired to teach the children and wives of the king, the King himself would learn immensely from her Victorian educating.
Ms. Kelly, undertaking the role of Anna, fares tremendously. Her voice is pure and heavenly, a gift directly from Buddha. Her stunning gowns, complete with cage crinoline, never get in her way, even when polkaing across the stage or bowing below the King's head. Ms. Kelly exemplifies the Anna of whom Rogers and Hammerstein wrote.
Mr. Llana plays his kingship as a tough nut to crack, but once he begins to budge from his stern and strict temperance, his shell cracks to a near childish level. Even the King isn't above sticking his tongue out in mockery! Still, his passion rings through in "A Puzzlement," and his energy radiates any time he takes the stage.
Witty humor becomes more apparent throughout the show, but the comedic asides cannot match the emotional climax of the show, tugging at heartstrings only enough so that they don't break. The King's, Anna's, and Tuptim (Manna Nichols)'s acting is piercingly poignant. In another word: perfect.
This production differs from its Broadway production, as many traveling tours do. The original Lincoln Center Theater production, complete with twenty-nine musicians in the orchestra and a boat that nearly sailed into the audience, wowed audiences for its grandeur and grace, but this production's modification brings the grandiose fervor to a scale that enhances and expands the stage vertically and makes the most of the space.
The King and I enlightens the cross-culture conversations and opens dialogue about gender roles. It's easy to see a tyrannical ruler as a barbarian and perhaps equally as easy to see a young lover as naïve; this show presents the polemicist version of preconceived notions of the East and the loved. The King and I is a cherished classic, and this production leaves no question as to why.
To see or not to see score: 8/9; Strongly Recommended Show
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy