Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
While most would probably deem yet another new production of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical as something you can skip over in favor of something much more current, discerning audiences both young and old shouldn't so easily dismiss the utterly exquisite new production of the 1951 Broadway musical "THE KING AND I" that just recently launched its brand new national tour in San Francisco in November and now, after a rather lengthy So. Cal. sit-down, continues its final performances at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through January 21.
Sweepingly opulent and beautifully staged, this Tony Award-winning 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival combines the elegance and grace of the classic musical with a knowing sensitivity of modern times. 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 heights.
Much like THE KING AND I's still surprisingly-timely plot, Sher's new 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 unforgettable book and lyrics feel properly honored yet still purposely refreshed for the 21st century.
The resulting show, to put it simply, is thoroughly enchanting from start to finish.
From the moment the curtain rises to reveal the stunningly imposing ship Chow Phya slowly docking into Bangkok carrying British school teacher Anna Leonowens (the spectacular Laura Michelle Kelly) and her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery), 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 in the crossroads of many centuries' worth of traditional standards and a new modern world outside their borders slowly spreading its forward momentum of progress.
Mrs. Leonowens, we learn, has been summoned by none other than the King of Siam himself, King Mongkut (the brilliant Jose Llana) to not only serve as his many (many!) children's governess, but to also teach these same children (and himself, by proximity) in modern and scientific principles that other countries possess—all in the hopes of ushering his country out of traditional, ancient thinking and into modern progress and equal footing on the world stage.
It continually proves difficult on both sides, as the King struggles to exert his absolute authoritarian rule, as dictated by his very country's own standards, while Anna struggles to advise the King to adopt new world principles without offending him or causing him anger, while at the same time, being heard by the King as an equal, not as a mere servant. She almost bolts her post upon learning that the King is openly defying her contract demands for a house separated from the palace. The King, naturally, doesn't understand why anyone would not want to live inside the grand walls of his palace.
Like the King, though, Anna doesn't back down too easily from a debate—which often results into some fiery arguments. The King and Anna are both very strong-minded and strong-willed—which causes much of the underlying tensions between the characters throughout the musical.
But as stubborn as the King is, he does possess a genuine willingness to improve and to learn and to adapt to a world moving towards modernization.
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.
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 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.
Hmmm… 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. 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 it also develops vice-versa. They both, in a way, "improve" each other.
Meanwhile, right under their noses inside the palace, another romance is blossoming: slave girl Tuptim (Manna Nichols), a "gift" from the King of Burma, develops a secret relationship with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), the young student who dropped her off at the palace. They soon resolve to runaway together.
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 new choreographer Christopher Gatelli has revived much of Jerome Robbins' original moves, particularly in the still amazing ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas," one of the most iconic set pieces of any musical that, wow, I must say is still thrilling to experience.
And 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, providing many outstanding performances—most notably from its two incredible leads who sound great together and, yes, even apart. Kelly's beautiful, ethereal vocals, are practically perfect in every way (yes, her perfect diction harkens to her days as Mary Poppins), while Llana's quirky, much more relatable humanizing new take on the King is by far my favorite portrayal thus far of the role. He's stern one minute, playfully eccentric in another, etcetera… etcetera… 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.
While I would have liked to have seen a less subtle display of flirtation and a bit more underlying sexual tension from both in many key scenes that expected such feelings to surface—particularly in "Shall We Dance"—I still applaud their discernible chemistry.
Joan Almedilla is a wonderful standout as the King's "senior" wife Lady Thiang. Her "Something Wonderful" is a memorable, soaring highlight. I was transfixed by Nichol's sumptuous singing voice. 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. And, man, as I mentioned before… "Small House of Uncle Thomas" was a truly timeless piece of musical theater.
Of course, it goes without saying, that THE KING AND I, on a deeper personal level, means a lot for this reviewer 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. I don't think I have to express how empowering it is to experience that, especially when such occurrences are still, in 2016, quite rare. THE KING AND I historically has had to contend with a few unfortunate stereotypes in previous productions, even though its intentions for showcasing cultural diversity were otherwise honorable. This new revival, I'm happy to report, made me feel represented rather than ridiculed.
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 seek out this brand new, emotionally rich, exquisitely-staged, and beautifully-sung national tour. It truly fills you with infectious glee then breaks your heart before you know it. Its themes, funny enough, are remarkably timely considering the current state of our world, too. Bottom line, THE KING AND I is worth a revisit.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the 2016-2017 National Tour Company of THE KING AND I by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of The Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
Remaining performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein's THE KING AND I at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through January 21 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street. For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.