More Empathy for a Barbaric Monarch in the Touring “King and I”

Review: The King and I

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By: Perry Tannenbaum

When I saw The King and I presented on a thrust stage at the Stratford Festival of Canada in the summer of 2003, I struggled for superlatives, convinced that this was the best production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that I’d ever see. While the Asian spectacle and the beloved R&H hit parade were given their due, both were subordinated under Susan Schulman’s direction to the conviction that this is a theatre classic, presented on a thrust stage at Stratford’s marvelous Festival Theatre.

Though I heard wonderful things about the recent Lincoln Center production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre – another thrust stage – I was reluctant to risk disappointment in comparing Bartlett Sher’s direction to Schulman’s. Well, the touring version that has just touched down in Charlotte dispels my doubts. Leaning more toward spectacle and theatricality, unafraid of a cliché or two, Sher’s King and I took me by surprise with its emotional power.

Wonders begin early, with the prow of a large ship sailing onto the stage, surely astonishing when it docked at the Vivian Beaumont in New York and no less amazing as part of the touring production now at Belk Theater. A few minutes later, when Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis debark in Bangkok for their adventures in the royal palace of Siam, we realize that getting the ship off the stage gracefully is a feat that easily equals bringing it on. Doing it while simulating the bustle of Bangkok adds to the delight.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

One of the enduring hallmarks of Hammerstein’s book is the culture clash between the starchy propriety of the British teacher, Anna, and the silky sensuality of the Siamese. Catherine Zuber resplendently represents the clash in her costume designs – whether it’s the eye-popping colors worn by the King’s wives and children or the frilly hoop skirts that give Anna her aura. Yet there’s a political undercurrent that widens the gulf: Anna hails from an empire ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria, while the King claims superiority over all his subjects and expects absolute submission from all his wives.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Constantly reminding him of his promise to house her outside the palace while she teaches his wives and children, Anna astounds the King with her uppity-ness and tenacity. Were it not for the efforts of the King’s chief wife, Lady Thiang, to hold things together, this doomed relationship would quickly disintegrate. Sher deftly underscores Thiang’s subterranean feminism, so Joan Almedilla’s “Something Wonderful,” usually sung as a desperate supplication, emphasizes Thiang’s nobility – easily the most emotionally shattering moment of the show.

Raw realism is at the heart of this appeal. You can guide him to self-fulfillment. I cannot.

The most dramatic moment occurs where the three main plotlines converge. Early on, Tuptim is presented to the King as a gift wife from the ruler of Burma – by Lun Tha, the Burmese emissary whom Tuptim actually loves. The third storyline, the King’s attempt to impress British officials and debunk reports that he is a barbarian, propels much of the action, elevating Anna’s usefulness to the King and hatching the famed “Small House of Uncle Thomas” play-within-the-play.

After this triumphant presentation, Tuptim is caught trying to run away with Lun Tha, and we get the most forceful denouement I’ve ever seen in any production of this musical. When chief minister Kralahome (a wonderfully stolid Brian Rivera) tells Anna, “You have destroyed the King,” we can believe it.

Jose Llana is stern and imperious enough as the King of Siam when he needs to be, but he infuses more hearty mischief into navigating his difficulties with Anna, adding to the notion that, yes, she could be a little more indulgent and understanding. Complementing that portrayal, Laura Michelle Kelly never stints on Anna’s primness, firmly distancing herself from intimacy and sexuality until the moments when the charming rapprochement between the schoolmarm and the King reach peak temperature in “Shall We Dance?”

Kelly’s “Hello, Young Lovers” reads as a matronly approval of love from someone who has renounced it for herself, so it’s delicious to discover that old friend Sir Edward Ramsey – a veddy British Baylen Thomas – perceives this renunciation so much more readily than the King. Deflecting the question of whether the King is a blindly driven barbarian in his lusts, Hammerstein skirted the tender issue of whether the Siamese monarch ever took advantage of Tuptim.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited-1That opens a path for Manna Nichols to sing her solos and duets as Tuptim with liberated strength, expanding upon the intelligence that was always hers when she presided over the “Uncle Thomas” ballet. Kavin Panmeechao adjusts beautifully as Lun Tha in the duets, not quite as regal as his lover but admirable in his steadfastness.

All the silky cutesiness of the small fry is retained in “The March of Siamese Children,” but the two prime youths both count as the story unfolds. Each in his own fashion, Graham Montgomery as Louis Leonowens and Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne, is modeling the aristocratic discipline we expect of a first-born. More than Montgomery, Chan gets to model the realization that our parents aren’t perfect – and that we must move on from there.

The lessons are more meaningful for the Prince, who is the last of Anna’s students to show his appreciation for the very best in her, her maternal love. It’s a key reason why this edition of The King and I ends up feeling so warm and satisfying when all the fundamental disagreements between the title characters have played out and the Prince sets forth on a new path.


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