BWW Review: Kennedy Center's THE KING AND I is Sweeping, Epic and Glorious, etcetera, etcetera
The Kennedy Center Opera House seats 2,364 patrons. And yet, when Jose Llana's commanding King of Siam extended his hand to Laura Michelle Kelly's polished Anna Leonowens and purred 'come,' one could hear a pin drop. What followed was one of the most glorious scenes in all of musical theatre, "Shall We Dance?" Lincoln Center's epic and sweeping production of The King and I, currently at the Kennedy Center, is Broadway done right and not to be missed!
What is remarkable about this production is how Director Bartlett Sher has lovingly restored the musical to its former grandeur while also reminding us of the story's timeless quality. The themes of two cultures meeting, a leader struggling to confront a rapidly evolving world and a woman striving to be seen as an equal is as relevant now as when The King and I premiered in 1951 at Broadway's St. James Theatre.
Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein's fifth musical tells the story of Anna, a widowed British officer's wife, who moves to Siam to teach the King's children. Her duties go beyond that of headmistresses as the King strives to modernize his country while rejecting imperial overtures from the British.
As with any production of The King and I, the phantoms of the 1956 movie adaption and that of Yul Brynner, who played the King for 4,600 plus performances, hovers over any production. That doesn't prevent Llana and Kelly from turning in first-rate performances and Sher from creating a revival that honors past productions and makes a few tweaks. For example, this production restored 50 lines that were cut ahead of the musical's original Broadway run.
Llana, who grew up in Springfield, previously ascended the throne of Siam twice during the tour's original run at Lincoln Center and has grown into a remarkable King. Yes, there are elements of Brynner's performance, and that's fair. However, Llana is more playful in the role which makes the show's climax that much more impactful.
Together he and Kelly shine. Their relationship in this production of The King and I is an equal partnership. With previous productions, this hasn't always been the case and it's nice to see the balance between the characters restored. Not only do they dazzle with "Shall We Dance?", their verbal sparring and comedic timing is pitch perfect.
Kelly has the unenviable task of assuming a role which has been played by some of the greatest leading ladies in the theatre including Gertrude Lawrence, Donna Murphy and most recently Kelli O'Hara. Whereas O'Hara's Anna was pragmatic and more serious, Kelly seems to relish the humor in Hammerstein's book and lyrics. In no scene is this more apparent than the first act's "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" She also bears a striking resemblence to Deborah Kerr's Anna from the film version thanks to Catherine Zuber's lavish Victorian-era costumes and Tom Watson's wigs.
Another aspect of The King and I which is utterly fascinating is the interplay between the title characters and the King's chief wife, Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla). She, more than anyone, propels the story with her sharp insights and perceptive observations. The result is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's greatest songs, and my personal favorite, "Something Wonderful." Almedilla performs the song like she portrays Lady Thiang, with great strength and subtly.
Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao capture the idealism of young love as the King's slave Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and visiting scholar Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). The later has a crooner's gift to make you swoon with the second act ballad "I Have Dreamed." And while the song maybe a standard from the fifties, you never get tired of hearing it and especially with a voice as smooth as Panmeechaos.
Sher and Set Designer Michael Yeargan give this production a cinematic movement with oriental scrims and pillars flowing between scenes. Bringing Richard Rodgers masterful score to life with royal flair is a superb 16 piece orchestra under the expert direction of conductor Gerald Steichen. Rodgers' contemporary score is sprinkled with Asian influences conveying the foreboding nature of a foreign land ("I Whistle A Happy Tune") with the nostalgia for lost love ("Hello, Young Lovers") and the exciting passion of unresolved romantic tension ("Shall We Dance?").
Jerome Robbins original choreography serves as the inspiration for Christopher Gattelli's work on this production. The "March of the Siamese Children" remains as charming as ever, while "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet is an exquisitly danced adaption of Uncle Tom's Cabin and parable for Tuptim's situation.
The British may have William Shakespeare, but Americans will always have Rodgers & Hammerstein. Few companies have championed the pioneering work of these men quite like Lincoln Center and Director Bartlett Sher. Even if you've seen the movie or other stage productions countless times, it would be a mistake to miss this revival. What is currently onstage at the Kennedy Center Opera House is an American classic restored to its former glory. There's no puzzlement here, you must have an audience with the King.
Runtime is two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
The King and I runs thru August 20 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets please click here.