BWW Review: THE KING AND I at the Kennedy Center - It is 'Something Wonderful'
Oh how delightful it was to hear a spectacular overture before a Broadway musical. When is the last time you heard one? We heard snippets of great music to come such as "Something Wonderful", Whistle a Happy Tune", "Shall We Dance" and "Hello Young Lovers" all played by the talented orchestra (the massive 15 pieces) under the baton of Gerard Steichen.
The wonderful music certainly put the Kennedy Center Opera House in the mood for what was to come - that is an "old fashioned" musical ( I mean that in the nicest way) filled with great voices, music and a story that still resonates.
When THE KING AND I opened on Broadway in 1951, it was literally just six years after World War II when the United States was still coping with the horrific treatment of Japanese-Americans from California being put in internment camps. But like SOUTH PACIFIC, the writing team of Oscar Hammerstein (Book and Lyrics) and Richard Rogers (Music) did not shy away from controversy (like "You've Got to Be Taught" from SOUTH PACIFIC.
Broadway had a lot to learn though about diversity. There were only two Asians in the cast of THE KING AND I which takes place in the Kingdom of Siam and set in Bangkok (different from the Bangkok of MISS SAIGON). Story involves of an English widow, Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) hired to teach his many wives and 77 children about western civilization...a risky venture.
The musical is based on the 1943 best-selling novel "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon which was inspired by Leonowens' memoirs. This was followed by the 1946 dramatic film adaptation starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. The Broadway musical opened in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yule Brynner with costumes by the great Irene Sharaff (Tony winner for Best Costumes) and choreography by Jerome Robbins. When Lawrence died, she was buried in the gown she wore in "Shall We Dance" (read "The Hammersteins" by Oscar Andrew Hammerstein).
The hit musical has been revived four times on Broadway. The latest incarnation was the Lincoln Center Theatre production in 1995 which garnered four Tony Awards starring Kelli O'Hara in the leading role of Anna and the DC production is based on that success with about 1/3 of the Lincoln Center cast still involved and has a total of 37 actors on stage. "Anna" is now played by lovely Laura Michele Kelly who I listen to almost every day on the CD of the hit musical FINDING NEVERLAND. Kelly is just plain marvelous.
Opposite Kelly is Jose Llana who played the "King" for two stretches on Broadway after making his Broadway debut as "Lun Tha" in the same production. It is easy to see how comfortable he is on stage and it is clear he relishes his role where he is both tyrannical and loving while possessing a powerful voice.
Others who deserve attention are Joan Almedilla's" Lady Thiang " who plays the King's main wife and nails the iconic "Something Wonderful". Manna Nichols plays the slave "Tuptim" who is a gift to the King and her "My Lord and Master" causes goose bumps.
Brian Rivera plays the powerful role of "Kralahome" the King's right-hand man.
A highlight of the evening is the wonderful ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" which features traditional Siamese dances and masks.
And how can one not mention the fabulous children who shine in "The March of Siamese Children".
Catherine Zuber once again has show what a great costumer she is. I remember her great work many years at Baltimore's Center Stage. Her gown for "Anna's" famous polka dance weighs 40 pounds and it takes two people to put her in it.
Michael Yeargan's sets for the main part were minimalist and disappointing but I did love his boat at the top of the show as "Anna" and her son "Louis" (Graham Montgomery) arrive from Singapore. I was not impressed with his movable columns which reminded me of architect Frank Gehry's ugly columns in his design of the proposed Eisenhower Memorial.
It was Bartlett's plan to make the relationship between "Anna" and "The King" more sensual and he has succeeded.
If you have never seen THE KING AND I here is your chance to see one of the most beloved musicals of all time. And even if you have (or at least saw the film), if will bring back a lot of memories.
THE KING AND I runs until August 20. For ticket, call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Running simultaneously at the Eisenhower Theatre through August 6 is the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of CABARET.
Get your tickets now for THE BOOK OF MORMON which comes to the Opera House October 24 to November 19, 2017.
The cast of the KING AND I is performing a benefit on August 14 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids at the Bistro Bistro, 1727 Conn. Ave.NW, Washington, DC. The program is entitled "One Night in Banghok" and will feature members of the cast. Tickets are $25, $40 for VIP tickets. Show begins at 8. Doors open at 7 for VIP admission which includes food, a meet and greet with the cast, and preferred seating.