In A World That is Regressing, Lincoln Center’s ‘The King and I’ is Essential Viewing

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER | Theater Review | Fri Dec. 16, 2016 4:14pm EST

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in ‘The King and I’ Photo/MATTHEW MURPHY

LOS ANGELES  — Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I has been revived four times on Broadway since its 1951 debut, most recently last year by director Bartlett Sher, whose Lincoln Center Theater production won four Tony Awards including one for its acclaimed star Kelli O’Hara. That sublime production — now with Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna — is beginning to make its way around the country on tour, arriving in Los Angeles this week at the Pantages Theatre for a six-week run.

So daring in its day 65 years ago, as it tackled slavery, tyranny, sexism, racism, feminism and anti-intellectualism, The King and I feels all too fresh returning to us now just as the world seems to be regressing.

The story of Anna Leonowens, the widowed British schoolteacher who arrives in 1860s Bangkok to tutor the King of Siam’s children in English and Western culture, is familiar to generations of theatergoers and movie fans. Bestowing her subtle lessons of girl-power on the wives and humility upon the men, Kelly’s brave Anna brims with grace and grit. Alone in a new country, she calms herself and her young son by “whistling a happy tune” during the show’s timeless opening number, setting the stage for her fearless adventure.

Assembling an uncommonly strong cast for a touring production, Sher has kept his 2015 stage vision intact, right down to one of its kings, Jose Llana, who portrayed the title role for two stretches during the recent Broadway run. Llana’s ties to the show run deep (and his love for this material shows). He made his Broadway debut in the 1996 revival, appearing as the young lover Lun Tha in a production that starred Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips. While that revival had its moments, Sher’s take is one long rapturous moment — a work of art that stirs, then lingers like a watercolor.

In one of the greatest scores in Broadway history, this spot-on cast is gifted with classics such as “I Have Dreamed,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance” and “Getting to Know You” — music so pure it doesn’t need much more than a light operatic touch. It’s refreshing just to sit back and enjoy a musical in which the performers aren’t jockeying for notes as if they were contestants on American Idol.

The company of <em>The King and I</em>
Matthew Murphy
The company of The King and I

If a show so rich can even have a best song, it is probably the intoxicating “Something Wonderful” — a plea for understanding from the King’s elder wife, the wise Lady Thiang, portrayed so earnestly by Joan Almedilla. “I Have Dreamed” also stands out in the hands of Kavin Panmeechao and Manna Nichols, as the doomed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes dazzle, and Michael Yeargan’s sets (both grand and minimalist) provide the brilliant backdrop, particularly during the orchestral “March of the Siamese Children,” when the King is revealed as human after all.

However, the real magic in this show has always been the way it conveys an entire love story in a single physical gesture. And it is that pivotal moment midway through “Shall We Dance” when the King takes hold of Anna, that this particular production also sets itself apart.

Because the late Yul Brynner inhabited this role so completely on stage and screen for more than 30 years, it became something close to folly for an actor even to try to do his own thing in the part. But Llana is a force, and his tormented, relatable King is another reason this evening is so dreamy.

But back to reality. There were some uncomfortable titters in the opening-night audience when the King asks how Abraham Lincoln became president of America and Anna answers with, “I believe he studied very hard.” When he muses that he might build a fence around Siam and when his son searches for signs of intelligent life in the Universe, these topics also seemed sadly close to home. Seductive performances, timeless music and timely themes make Sher’s production of The King and I as compelling and important today as it ever was.

‘The King and I’

Cast: Laura Michelle Kelly, Jose Llana, Joan Almedilla, Manna Nichols, Kavin Panmeechao, Anthony Chan, Graham Montgomery, Brian Rivera, Baylen Thomas
Director: Bartlett Sher
Music: Richard Rodgers
Book & lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel 
Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music direction: Ted Sperling
Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett
Dance & incidental music arranger: Trude Rittmann
Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli, based on original choreography by Jerome Robbins
Production: Lincoln Center Theater
Presented by Ambassador Theatre Group, NETworks Presentations