BWW Review: THE KING AND I Does Justice to a Classic at Milwaukee's Marcus Center
Take a 1950s musical classic with the names "Rodgers and Hammerstein" attached and you've got a lot to live up to, even in 2019. These beloved stories, songs, and performances are seared into people's brains, and it can be tough to top the nostalgia. Happily for the national tour of Rogers and Hammerstein's The King and I, the cast holds their own and the story stays, for the most part, as compelling as ever.
The King and I is based off the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which was in turn based off the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, English governess to the children of the king of Siam (present day Thailand) in the 1860s. The Siamese King really did have 39 wives and 82 children. Wanting to move Siam toward modern ways of thinking, the King brought in "Mrs. Anna" to teach his children and wives in Western, scientific subjects.
Leave it to Rogers and Hammerstein to romanticize Anna's relationship with the king, though there is less of that love-struck undercurrent in this 2019 touring production. Anna (Angela Baumgardner) and the King (Pedro Ka'awaloa) tend more toward a mutual admiration than a romance. Intentional? The clever rapport between Baumgardner and Ka'awaloa bring some of the strongest moments to this King and I. If the leads wanted to inject more romantic tension throughout, they have the chops for it. Still, these two play easily off each other in friendliness, and that's great fun.
Taken on their own, Baumgardner strikes the right note as the nurturing and knowledgeable Mrs. Anna. Her "Hello Young Lovers" is sweet and sincere. She delivers the well-known tune "Getting to Know You" with cheery optimism, while still coming at the King with believably bold, courageous honesty in more heated moments.
Ka'awaloa's King of Siam is largely likable and, strange as it sounds, endearing in his arrogance. In what may be squirm-inducing moments, like the ways the King talks about slavery or his many wives, the audience is made to feel like we're all in on the joke - the joke being that the King's notions may be so obviously backward and naive in their logic, but at least we all know it.
This sense of The King and I being largely self-aware is what makes it easier to delight in the King, rather than despise him. We see in Ka'awaloa a King who, for all his charm and confidence, is secretly lost and desperate for guidance in what's right. His eventual willingness to change is what makes this character's faults tolerable and his demeanour likable in 2019.
Backing up the leads are two ladies who deserve some special praise: Paulina Yeung as Tuptim and Deanna Choi as Lady Thiang, both who are making their national tour debut. Yeung's first solo, "My Lord and Master," sends excited chills for all her voice's beauty and ease. Choi's "Something Wonderful" simultaneously brings sweetness and strength. Such lovely voices are a treat. Also, a shout-out must be paid to Timothy Matthew Flores as Prince Chulalongkorn for his seriously commanding entrance and sympathetic take on a young and puzzled king-to-be. The childrens cast is also, not surprisingly, adorable.
It's intriguing to examine how a show from 1951 holds up after nearly 70 years. The relationship between Anna and the King is at the heart of this story, and since our fascination with such relationships stands the test of time, so too does the central plot of The King and I. When it comes to the musical aspect, however, some of the songs really soar, while others fall a little flat. It may be that the evolution of musical theater makes certain styles of song feel dated to today's ears. That, or it takes real Broadway-caliber performers to take those songs to the next level.
Also, The King and I doesn't have stunning amounts of choreography to fall back on; it's mostly story and song. Yet the moments where dance is featured are a joy. Tuptim's play-within-a-play, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," has always been a favorite. The dancers in this national tour enchant with their splendid execution of Asian classical dance, with dazzling costumes to complete the dreamy scene.
There is also a short bit of choreography surrounding a ceremony celebrating a white elephant - a good omen for the kingdom. This sacred moment of dance feels fresh and is made all the more special by dramatic backlighting and the dancers' ethereal, snow-white attire. More such staging and interpretation would be welcome.
Even so, this King and I will surely satiate those who already adore this classic. Will it bring in new fans? One can hope. There is enough in The King and I that could well survive another fifty years, as long its best parts are amplified and future creatives remain open to reimagined possibilities.
Photo credit: Zach Stevenson