BWW Review: Something Truly Wonderful - THE KING AND I National Tour Debuts at PPAC

BWW Review: Something Truly Wonderful - THE KING AND I National Tour Debuts at PPAC

The much-acclaimed Lincoln Center staging of The King and I celebrates a triumphant start to its national tour at the Providence Performing Arts Center. This jewel of a production -- the winner of four Tony Awards -- is so utterly exceptional in every detail, words of praise scarcely seem to do it justice. Simply put, this is one of the finest shows to grace the PPAC stage in recent memory.

The King and I is a stalwart of Rodgers and Hammerstein's theatrical legacy, a perennial favorite for its engaging storyline, much-loved songs, unforgettable characters, and enduring romance. The musical (which is loosely based on a true account) follows the experiences of Englishwoman Anna Leonowens as she arrives at the royal court of Siam. The widowed Leonowens was employed as schoolteacher to the children of King Mongkut during the 1860s, and while the story unfolds with humor and lightness -- expressed through effervescent numbers such as "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Getting to Know You" -- The King and I openly explores the much deeper issues facing its characters, including ethnic and class divisions, slavery, colonial encroachment, and gender equality.

This show has been staged and restaged any number of times since if first bowed 65 years ago, from small-scale regional performances to lauded Broadway revivals to the iconic silver screen adaptation starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Lincoln Center Theater's current production, under the inspired direction of Bartlett Sher, is a near-definitive staging -- truly "something wonderful."

There is a sense of freshness to this new King and I which can be credited in part to the careful and deliberate development of each and every character to cross the footlights. The leading players are sure to stand out in any production, but Sher's vision brings personality and individuality to characters that might otherwise fade into the background, including servants and courtiers, the king's many wives, and even the royal children. This elevates scenes such as "The March of the Siamese Children" from a routine, if cute, plot point to a charming and thoroughly memorable theatrical moment. The audience comes to know nineteenth-century Siam and its people through Anna's eyes, following along as she interacts with her pupils and discovers the rich history of a new land, but likewise, theatergoers are invited to view Anna from the Siamese perspective as the king's court baffles over English customs, modes of dress, and points of view.

Without question, the touring cast has mastered the art of bringing these characters vibrantly to life. Laura Michelle Kelly is magnificent as Anna, blending the schoolteacher's buoyant confidence with the natural uncertainty one would feel when embarking on a new life in a new land. She convincingly portrays Anna's love for her pupils, her deep-rooted stubbornness, and her sympathy for Tuptim and Lun Tha's secret romance alongside the ups and downs of her complicated friendship with the king of Siam. Kelly's absolutely golden voice soars in each musical number, and she delivers "Hello, Young Lovers" with an ideal measure of hopefulness and longing.

Jose Llana captures all the qualities that make King Mongkut an engaging and complex personality. His enthusiastic gestures and quick-fire remarks demonstrate the king's bright intelligence and insatiable curiosity, while more considered movements allow him to fully express the king's determined, unwavering commitment to Siam's sovereignty and heritage. Llana perfectly plays up an exasperated sweetness and affection as the king interacts with his children, and his rich performance of "A Puzzlement" skillfully highlights the king's poise and authority while humanizing him as he wrestles with the doubts and uncertainties of leadership.

Together Kelly and Llana have outstanding, undeniable chemistry. The schoolteacher and the king challenge each other from their first meeting, with two very different cultures and two very strong personalities in the mix, but their friendship starts to blossom when the king (with artful indirectness) looks to Anna for counsel and advice. Kelly and Llana shine in their confrontational scenes at court, through thoughtful discussions in the king's study and royal schoolroom, and during the captivating and breathtaking "Shall We Dance?" duet.

Manna Nichols brings down the house as Princess Tuptim. This Tuptim is no shrinking violet; indeed, she exudes a commanding sense of self and a fiery independence of spirit from the moment she sets foot in the royal palace. Not only does Nichols possess a glorious singing voice, she completely immerses and invests herself in her role, delivering a superbly compelling performance that reads effortlessly to the back row of the theater. Her "I Have Dreamed" duet with Kavin Panmeechao (as the steadfast Lun Tha) is both beautiful and heartrending.

Lady Thiang, the king's head wife, is played with dignity and authority by Joan Almedilla. While Lady Thiang performs one of the most loved songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, "Something Wonderful," she can slip to the sidelines as the other characters' stories take center stage. Not so in this production. Almedilla's Thiang is fully mistress of her own household, with regal bearing and real influence in the royal court. Almedilla portrays Lady Thiang as wise, fair, and astute and insightful in her observations, qualities Thiang reveals in her no-nonsense conversations with Anna and during the "Western People Funny" number.

Anthony Chang charms as Prince Chulalongkorn. He appears every inch the royal heir in his initial haughty distrust of the British schoolteacher, then shows boyish admiration as he melts by degrees to accept and welcome her instruction. The prince develops a bond of friendship with Louis Leonowens (Graham Montgomery) even as he struggles to come into his own as a young man and future monarch. Chang and Montgomery bring the perfect mix of youthfulness and gravity to their reprise of "A Puzzlement." And Brian Rivera as the Siamese Kralahome (prime minister) establishes his character early on with a likeable gruffness and gravity.

The King and I also incorporates a play-within-a-play during the second act when Tuptim stages her "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet for the king's court and visiting European dignitaries. The "Uncle Thomas" scene is exceptionally well-presented in this production, to the point that it actually feels like a distinct entity, a performance in and of itself.

Lincoln Center Theater's artistic team creates a real sense of time and place from the moment the curtain rises. Michael Yeargan's sets feature a clean, uncluttered design, suggesting the bustle and richness of Siam's grand palace complex without overwhelming the eye. The few fully rendered set pieces (Captain Orton's boat, the "Uncle Thomas" scenery) pack a greater impact for this economy. Donald Holder's ethereal lighting effects enhance Yeargan's intelligent use of open space, suggesting the scope of the royal halls and the passage of time. Slender moving columns track and advance the characters' movements throughout the performance and are used to excellent advantage during the "Shall We Dance?" scene. In a moment of artistic serendipity, the golden fabric panels flanking the proscenium appear custom made for PPAC's stage, their delicate imagery blending in seamlessly with the gilt décor of the house.

Catherine Zuber's costumes are magnificent, from Anna's sweeping hoop skirts to the simple-yet-regal attire of the king and members of his royal household. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli fully expresses the spirit of each song and scene, from the winsomeness of "Getting to Know You" to the re-creation of Siamese theatrical conventions in the "Uncle Thomas" ballet to the electric, high romance of the king and Anna's famed "Shall We Dance?" waltz.

The King and I clocks in at nearly three hours, but this production is so beautifully paced and performed that time passes by in barely a heartbeat. There is not one moment, not one song or scene that lags or fails to fully captivate in every way. This company fully deserves every round of applause and standing ovation it is sure to garner in the coming weeks and months on tour.

The Lincoln Center Theater production of The King and I plays The Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, November 6, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Individual ticket prices start at $31 and group orders (15 or more) may be placed by calling (401) 574-3162.

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Pictured: Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

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