BWW Review: Segerstrom Center Welcomes the Gorgeous Lincoln Center Theater Production of THE KING AND I

Just a little more than a year ago, Southern California audiences first bared witness to the beautiful and exquisite national tour production of Lincoln Center Theater's Tony Award-winning revival of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic THE KING AND I when it made its debut at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood for a rather lengthy sit-down engagement.

I, along with the rapt theatergoers in attendance at its opening night performance in Los Angeles, were all utterly spellbound by its sweeping opulence and gorgeous, reverent staging---which notably combines the elegance and grace of the classic musical many of us have known and loved for decades with a knowing sensitivity to modern times that we exist in today.

Luckily, the national tour production has finally circled back to the West Coast, this time for a two-week run of performances at Orange County's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa that continues through March 11, 2018.

It is no surprise that this truly magnificent production is yet another feather in the cap of director Bartlett Sher, whose superb revivals of SOUTH PACIFIC and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF have certainly cemented his knack for refreshing classic musicals to glorious new heights while still honoring their original visions.

Much like THE KING AND I's still alarmingly timely plot, Sher's top-notch revival acts as a bridge between old and new---between tradition and innovation. In his hands, Richard Rodgers' timeless score and Oscar Hammerstein III's remarkably forward-thinking book and lyrics feel properly honored, yet still purposely and smartly refreshed for the 21st century.

And even more remarkable---especially for those who made the difficult decision to wait to see the show here in Orange County---is the fact that more than a year after this national tour production first launched in the fall of 2016, many of its actors---including the show's two superb leads---remain in the show and are as outstanding as ever, if not more.

The resulting production, to put it simply, is thoroughly enchanting from start to finish.

From the moment the curtain rises to reveal the show's first "wow" moment---which finds a stunningly imposing ship Chow Phya slowly docking into Bangkok carrying widowed British school teacher Anna Leonowens (played by the spectacular Laura Michelle Kelly) and her young son Louis (Rhyees Stump)---the production will have you instantly mesmerized. Michael Yeargan's eye-popping sets and Catherine Zuber's Tony Award-winning costumes convincingly transport the audience to 19th Century Siam, where we find the country caught at the crossroads between many centuries' worth of traditional, old-world standards and a new modern, contemporary world outside their borders that is slowly spreading its forward momentum of progress.

Mrs. Leonowens, we quickly learn, has been hired (well, summoned) by none other than the King of Siam himself, King Mongkut (the brilliant and quite funny Jose Llana) to serve as his many (many!) children's private school teacher---instructing them (and the household, by proximity) in modern and scientific principles that other Western countries currently possess---all in the hopes of ushering his nation out of traditional, ancient thinking and into modern progress and equal footing on the world stage. Amusingly, he too is taking advantage of the knowledge the English schoolteacher is generously providing... albeit with great skepticism and, well, "puzzlement."

BWW Review: Segerstrom Center Welcomes the Gorgeous Lincoln Center Theater Production of THE KING AND I
Laura Michelle Kelly and the Royal Children

Though Anna and the King certainly have mutual respect and admiration for one another, their relationship continually proves difficult on both sides, as the King struggles to exert his absolute authoritarian rule---as dictated by his very country's own "old world" standards---while Anna struggles to advise the King to adopt "new world" principles he himself wants to implement without offending him or causing him anger, while at the same time, being truly heard by the King as an equal, not as just a mere servant like the rest under his employ.

Their relationship is so contentious, that she even almost bolts her post upon learning that the King is openly defying her contract demands for a promised house separated from the King's residence. The King, naturally, doesn't understand why anyone would not want to live inside the grand walls of his royal palace.

Like the King, though, Anna doesn't back down too easily from a debate---which often results into some fiery arguments, much to the enjoyment of the audience, of course. The King and Anna are indeed both very strong-minded and very strong-willed---which causes much of the underlying tensions between the characters throughout the musical. Oh, but wait... is some of that tension, um, romantic or, perhaps, even sexual in nature? It's quite subtle, but it's still there. (The thought that this musical---a product of the 1950's---had the audacity to introduce such racial notions back then is quite an eye-opening reminder of just how truly awesome and ahead of its time it is... way to go, Rodgers and Hammerstein!)

But as stubborn as the King is, he does possess a genuine willingness to improve, to learn, and to adapt to a world moving towards modernization and empirically-proven principles, even if much of it goes against tradition. Highly intelligent in his own right, the King is also looking very much ahead towards the future: he also wants to make sure his son and heir, Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) is prepared to take over the throne properly equipped to handle this new world and to be knowledgeable of it---should the time come.

And more than anything, the King's biggest personal hurdle to overcome is for Siam (and he, as its leader) to not be looked upon by other nations and outsiders as weak, behind-the-times, and, worse, "barbaric"---a label he is particularly sensitive to and that he is desperate to shed, even if it means willingly toning down centuries of his kingdom's traditions. Anna, of course, finds this to be an admirable (and, perhaps, attractive) attribute of the King, and, thus, is more than willing to help him reach his goals.

"When two people are as different as we are..." explains Anna, "we're bound to hurt each other."

Hmmm... so, again, are there maybe romantic feelings bubbling just below the surface? I mean, okay, sure, the King is an old-world misogynist and polygamist, but hardly a barbarian (heck, he's actually kind of a softie with a plethora of Siamese "dad" jokes at the ready). Even better, he's a ruler that's willing to change for the ultimate betterment of the kingdom and its citizens. This makes a very palpable, viable case as to why Anna develops an affection for the sovereign and, yes, why the affection also develops vice-versa. They both, in a way, "improve" each other.

BWW Review: Segerstrom Center Welcomes the Gorgeous Lincoln Center Theater Production of THE KING AND I
Q Lim, Kavin Panmeechao. Photo by Jason Daniel.

Meanwhile, right under their noses inside the palace, another romance is blossoming: well-read, rebellious slave girl Tuptim (the gloriously-voiced Q Lim), a "gift" from the King of Burma, is hiding a secret relationship with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), the handsome young student who was initially tasked to "deliver" her to the palace. In the shadows, the two star-crossed lovers meet clandestinely, developing a deep, aching love that seems to be blessed by Anna but frowned upon by the King's "head" wife Lady Thiang (the absolutely sublime Joan Almedilla).

Sick of hiding and constantly feeling in danger, the two young lovers soon resolve to runaway together. Uh oh.

Gorgeous and lush at every turn, this brand new revival of THE KING AND I is truly something wonderful---a perfectly balanced hybrid of old and new. Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations of this Rodgers and Hammerstein masterwork sounds even better under Ted Sperling's supervision and Gerald Steichen's baton---played to perfection by a glorious 18-piece orchestra. Even the revival's choreographer Christopher Gatelli has revived much of Jerome Robbins' original moves, particularly in the still amazing, awe-inspiring ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas," one of the most iconic set pieces of any musical that, wow, I must say, is still quite thrilling to experience live on stage. Cleverly staged, tragically beautiful, and contextually layered, this musical-within-a-musical is worth the price of admission alone.

And, yes, as if this touring production of THE KING AND I isn't blessed enough on most fronts, the incredible ensemble cast elevates it even more so, providing the audience many outstanding performances---most notably from its two incredible lead actors whose acting and singing performances fit their roles perfectly.

I have to say that, at least in my experience as a theatergoer, it is rare that the big-name marquee stars initially cast on a national tour stay in their respective shows this long. In that sense, Orange County is certainly very lucky to be experiencing this revival with both Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana (along with Kevin Panmeechao, Anthony Chan, Brian Rivera, and Joan Almedilla) still playing their roles in Costa Mesa---more than a year into the tour's run.

As soon as Kelly steps toward the bow of the ship at the opening of the show, with her voluminous hoop skirt while lit like an angel descending from the sunset sky, the musical is presented with a strong-willed female center that's also a vulnerable outsider to another world. Her beautiful, ethereal vocals, are delicately refined and practically perfect in every way (yes, her perfect diction harkens to her days playing Mary Poppins), while Llana's quirky, much more relatable, quite humanizing new take on the infamously cantankerous King of Siam is, by far, my favorite portrayal thus far of the role---cementing, for me, even more why Anna can understandably fall for the charms of the King.

Llana's King is stern one minute, playfully eccentric in another, etcetera... etcetera... etcetera... but also betray a King who, deep down, just wants to be liked not because he has power, but because he is genuinely likable and worthy of one's respect. Thus, it was genuinely heartbreaking seeing Llana's King react to Kelly's Anna calling him a "barbarian" during a passionate fit of rage---as if one lover said the most hurtful thing you could possibly say to the other who was already feeling vulnerable. Yep, that one totally got me... just as much as it did the first time I witnessed these actors essay this very scene.

While, sure, I would have liked to have seen a less subtle display of flirtation and a bit more overt sexual tension from both characters in many key scenes that expected such feelings to surface---particularly in "Shall We Dance"---I still applaud their discernible chemistry. Actually, on second viewing... the subtleties of their under-the-surface affection is perhaps the best these two are allowed to exert without it being taboo (though, part of me thinks Lady Thiang and the Kralahome were conniving together as matchmakers for them, haha).

Speaking of Lady Thiang and the Kralahome, Almedilla is, once again, a wonderful, rather regal standout as the King's "senior" wife, Lady Thiang, and Rivera is quite memorable in the role of the King's loyal and obedient right hand man. Almedilla's "Something Wonderful" is an especially unforgettable, soaring highlight, while I enjoyed Rivera's "less intimidating" take on the Kralahome (prior versions of the role felt unnecessarily more sinister).

BWW Review: Segerstrom Center Welcomes the Gorgeous Lincoln Center Theater Production of THE KING AND I
Michiko Takemasa (center)

Elsewhere, I was also absolutely enchanted by Q Lim's sumptuous perfect soprano voice as Tuptim. Her duets with Panmeechao's Lun Tha in "We Kiss In A Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" made me sigh with satisfaction and teary-eyed with romantic euphoria.

The children's ensemble is, as one might expect, delightful and adorable---I genuinely smiled every time the children came into the room, particularly the young lady who read the "goodbye" letter to Anna in the final scene. I also like Chan's skeptical but enthusiastic portrait of the crown prince, who shares a nice small exchange with Anna's young son Louis played by Stump.

And, man, as I mentioned before... "The Small House of Uncle Thomas"---this musical's "adaptation" of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery tome---remains a truly timeless piece of musical theater and is recreated wonderfully here. Bravo to Lim's vivid narration, and to the play's "cast" that includes LaMae Caparas as Eliza, Kayla Paige Amistad as Uncle Thomas, Nobutaka Mochimaru as George, Yuki Ozeki as Topsy, Michiko Takemasa as "pooooor" Little Eva, and Julius Sermonia as Simon of Legree. Also, an extra shout-out to the trio of women who sang the chorus during "Small House"---Nicole Ferguson, Marina Kondo, and Alicia Shumway.

Of course, it goes without saying, that THE KING AND I, on a deeper personal level, means a lot for me because it's an opportunity (that's unfortunately few and far between) to see faces like mine---Asians and Asian-Americans---on stage performing musical theater for a mass audience.

I don't think I have to express in so many words how empowering it is to experience this very (sadly) rare occasion of Asian representation, especially when such occurrences are still, in 2018, quite uncommon---in any medium, for that matter.

There is, naturally, a somewhat unavoidable problem about presenting a classic musical that features a white, Western character traveling to the Far East to "educate" a Centuries-old Ancient culture on ways to be "better" and be more acceptable to the West. It is, frankly, a daunting task that may even introduce unlikable and offensive stereotypes when done without care or forethought.

THE KING AND I, historically speaking, has had to contend with such unfortunate stereotypes in previous productions (and its own 1956 big screen adaptation, where many non-Asian actors were cast in Asian roles), even though its intentions for showcasing cultural diversity were otherwise incredibly honorable---particularly at a time when diversity wasn't being pushed to the mainstream.

This new revival, I'm happy to report, made me feel represented rather than ridiculed, while still honoring the original, more "old school" thinking of its source material. Additionally, though I myself am not of Thai descent as many of the characters are in the musical, I do take much pride in seeing many Filipino actors on stage singing and acting their hearts out to present this story of a friendship that transcended racial barriers---further displaying that such talents exist and further illuminating the fact that more opportunities beyond these few Asian-centric stories are very much needed in the otherwise more open-minded world of musical theater...and, of course, beyond.

I urge any and all---whether you've experienced the musical in a less opulent regional production or even a previous big-budget iteration---to check out this contemporary, emotionally rich, exquisitely-staged, and beautifully-sung national tour that has settled for a short stop here in Costa Mesa. It truly fills you with infectious glee, then breaks your heart before you even know it. Its themes, funny enough, are remarkably timely considering the current state of our divided world, too.

Bottom line, THE KING AND I is worth a revisit---especially with an open mind and an open heart.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Photos from the National Tour Company of THE KING AND I by Matthew Murphy (except otherwise noted), courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Portions of this review previously published.

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Performances of the National Tour of the Lincoln Center Theater Production of THE KING AND I at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, February 11, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.

For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.



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