Success of touring ‘The King and I’ is no puzzlement
By Bob Abelman
The double-edged sword associated with revivals of Golden Age musicals is that our overfamiliarity with the work – its score, its staging, its characters and the actors who defined them – cries out for change while simultaneously condemning it. Novelty and nostalgia are always at odds in theatrical re-productions.
This is particularly true for stage-to-screen musicals like “The King and I,” where our memories of the original work are cinematic. These perpetually preserved images are impossible to replicate in a live production and are reinforced with every viewing of the 1956 film, so each attempt at innovation is blatantly obvious and often underwhelming.
And yet, director Bartlett Sher’s production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, on tour and on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, offers creative changes and new ways of tapping our emotions without ever detracting from why it was a classic in the first place.
True to the Tony-winning revival that closed last June at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, this touring production manages to be both novel and nostalgic, which is remarkable. The product on stage is breathtaking.
Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom the modernist King brings to imperialistic Siam to tutor his many wives and children.
This production is intentionally cinematic. It creates gorgeous pictures that fill the stage with Michael Yeargan’s visually dramatic and oversized sets that are color-saturated with Donald Holder and Catherine Zuber’s lighting and costuming, respectively, and animated by Scott Lehrer’s rich sound design. And once the action moves into the Royal Palace, everything on stage is cinematically framed within decorative pillars that are suspended from the ceiling.
During the extraordinary “Shall We Dance?” number in Act II, the pillars move in opposition to the choreography, as if the movement was captured through a roving camera, which also creates the illusion of a more expansive performance space. By doing so, the staging cleverly captures one of the most iconic moments from the film.
Christopher Gattelli’s hyper-precise, Asian-infused choreography pays homage to Jerome Robbins’ original movement from the film and the 1951 Broadway production but takes full advantage of the physical strength and dexterity of his modern dancers.
This touring troupe consists of exceptionally talented dancers, particularly Lamae Caparas, Stephanie Lo, Jeoffrey Watson and Yuki Ozeki. The ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” performed before visiting British dignitaries to Siam, is one of this show’s many highlights.
While the production values are incredible, it is the performances of the featured actors that drive this show.
Following in Yul Brynner’s enduring footsteps is a difficult feat, so Jose Llana uses his youth as an asset to redefine the role. This King of Siam is more playful and more apt to reveal the insecurities that exist under the character’s outward displays of arrogance and entitlement. As such, he is boyishly charming and immediately endearing, which resets Anna’s response to him from romantic – the go-to-emotion in past productions – to a hard-fought and rather profound admiration.
This is only possible if the admiration is mutual, which is readily established by the earnest fearlessness Laura Michelle Kelly brings to the role of Anna. And, with a voice and stage presence that has graced the Broadway stage in “Finding Neverland, “Mary Poppins” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” she delivers “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” as Rodgers and Hammerstein had intended.
While all this may result in fewer tears as the two part ways at the end of the storytelling, they are no less heartfelt. And there are more tears to be had in the heartbreak generated by the talented Joan Almedilla as the King’s Chief Wife, Lady Thiang, during her moving rendition of “Something Wonderful” and by Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, the doomed lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, in “I Have Dreamed.”
These featured performers are surrounded by a fully committed, highly disciplined and always interesting ensemble. And everyone is accompanied by a large spot-on local orchestra steered by a core of touring musicians and effectively directed by Gerald Steichen.
It is impossible to ask for more out of a national tour or any production of “The King and I.” This is the one that future revivals will be compared to. CV
WHAT: “The King and I”
WHERE: Connor Palace Theatre, 1511 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through Feb. 26
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $110, call 216-241-6000 or visit playhousesquare.com
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on February 9, 2017.
Lead image: Jose Llana as the King of Siam and Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna. Photo | Matthew Murphy