BWW Review: THE KING AND I at Broadway San Jose is a welcome visitor

BWW Review: THE KING AND I at Broadway San Jose is a welcome visitor
Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang sees "Something Wonderful."

With musicals from the Golden Age of Broadway (usually considered the '40s to the '60s) struggling these days under the weight of ponderously outdated books or 21st-century consciousness, it is gratifying to report that The King and I, now ensconced on a tour stop in San Jose, is holding up particularly well. The story still contains large dollops of patriarchy, sexism, imperialism, and slavery, but then as now, it deals with them directly and effectively.

Stripped of sentiment, it is the story of a determined mother defying the conventions of her times, matching wit and will with a literally imperious employer in a decidedly unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment. It is also a love story. Many love stories, in fact. Love of tradition, love of home and country, and loves that are lost, restrained, forbidden, betrayed, and unconditional. Happily, the cast of this tour, born of the Tony-winning 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival, are excellent story tellers.

On opening night, Brian Rivera - alternating the roles of the King and the Kralahome with Darren Lee - artfully portrayed a monarch both forceful and tentative, curious and oblivious, thoughtful, obstinate, and more. A man of good intent struggling with old ways, new ideas, and the puzzlement of discerning what is best for his people. In contrast, Lee Kralahome is a shrewd, focused, and unyielding prime minister, skeptical of change and unconcerned with anything but the preservation of the monarchy he serves.

The wedge between them is Anna Leonowens, a smart and principled Welsh woman who earns the trust of the King and the love of the royal family. Laura Michelle Kelly, whose credits include the Beggar Woman in the Tim Burton film of Sweeney Todd and several Broadway and West End musicals, seemed to struggle a bit with pitch early on, but found her voice and firm footing by the time the royal Siamese children marched out to meet her. Kelly's Anna is insistent but not completely unreasonable, despite the King calling her a very difficult woman on more than one occasion. Absent a romantic interest, Anna channels her passion into her convictions and a clear-eyed if pedantic perception of right and wrong. Kelly plays these cards well and also finds good humor in her sparring with the King on male-female dynamics.

Kavin Panmeechoa and Q Lim bring complementary strengths to the secret young lovers. His Lun Tha is vocally blessed, easily climbing the soaring lines of "I Have Dreamed," but slack-jawed in elaborating further once the music has stopped. Conversely, you know Lim is a princess - in the best meaning of the word - with her first line. "I am Tuptim." The delivery holds the posture of someone born for a purpose better than being a gift from one man to another. Throughout, Lim strikes the wary stance of one conscious that her world could end at any moment. As acted, her "My Lord and Master" is a stinging rebuke of the absurdity of her situation. As sung, both here and in her romantic duets, Lim suffers from a vocal thinness that undermines her otherwise strong performance.

The brightest performance of the night is from Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang. Her compressed elegance, played out on the way she positions her hands or adjusts her dress, is fascinating. She sees all and constantly tests the boundaries of her influence. The performance is a study in control and political maneuvering that becomes all the more astonishing when she lets her guard drop during "Something Wonderful" and reveals the hope and heartache of being chief wife to a man "you forgive and forgive."

The physical production here is lush and eye-pleasing, with a rich palette of colors and textures in the sets of Michael Yeargan and the wonderfully intricate costumes by Catherine Zuber. Directed by Bartlett Sher, with Christopher Gattelli channeling the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, the evening moves through its many scenes with elegance and grace. A delightful rediscovery is "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, which is long and can be deadly dull in lesser hands. Here it becomes an enlightening cultural cul-de-sac wrapped around a potent act of resistance.

Then, of course, there's the music. The Rodgers and Hammerstein score - including "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You," and "I Have Dreamed" - consists of lush, memorable songs that define character, advance plot, and most importantly, stay in the mind and heart.

The era of Broadway defining the Top 40 has long since passed, but even in that heyday, The King and I was a remarkable hit machine, from Sinatra and Streisand to Mathis and Manchester. Of the production's thirteen named songs - not counting instrumentals, reprises, and the ballet - less than a handful defied easy success in the pop cover market.

Yet even in those seemingly "lesser" songs, you'll find prescient gems of Hammerstein lyrics. In "A Puzzlement," the King observes:

"Everybody find confusion
In conclusion he concluded long ago
And it
puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he
know,
Very quickly he will fight...
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!"

The mid-century musings of this musical monarch could just as easily be an assessment of today's political landscape. It's that timeless quality throughout that makes The King and I a true classic, and makes this beautifully-realized production a warm and overdue visit with an old and dear friend.

BWW Review: THE KING AND I at Broadway San Jose is a welcome visitor
Michiko Takemasa as the tragic Little Eva
in "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet.

The King and I runs through February 25 at Broadway San Jose.

Images: Matthew Murphy

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