Dallas — Rodgers and Hammerstein clearly had a grand stage spectacle in mind when they created The King and I in 1951, back in the golden age of the post-war Broadway musical. And Lincoln Center Theater’s touring production, currently playing at Winspear Opera House in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series, provides a non-stop parade of visual and dramatic delights of the sort composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist-playwright Oscar Hammerstein II envisioned.
The play itself will forever be associated—for those of us of the older generation, at least—with Yul Brynner’s delving, multilayered portrayal of the King. In this production, Jose Llana out-Brynners Brynner with a constant kinetic energy sweeping him through one of the most intense, multi-faceted roles in the Broadway repertoire. The King is an absolute authoritarian, tempered by masculine insecurities and a desire for knowledge and improvement, living under the shadow of possible takeover by European powers. Llana bounds convincingly from one mood to the next with perfect timing and high-voltage stage presence.
The show itself, while undoubtedly a classic, demands a little contextualizing on the part of the audience these 75 years later. This is epitomized in the role of Anna, the English schoolmistress hired to educate the king’s many children. Although The King and I is set in the 1860s, Anna is a mid-20th-century version of a strong, determined woman, who knows how to pretend to give in to get what she wants, and to suffer on with a stiff upper lip in order to do what she sees as her duty. Anyone who’s been on the planet very long knows that’s how it was (and still is, in some places and situations). As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly convincingly and winningly rolls through this tricky terrain in her massive hoop-skirted gowns. (The one moment at which this admittedly complex situation becomes cringe-worthy arrives when the King insists that Anna, in keeping with Siamese tradition, keep her head lower than his, resulting in a bit of slapstick worthy of I Love Lucy at its most superficial.
Throughout, The King and I easily and unfortunately assumes the superiority of western culture and its “civilizing” effects in Asia, along with a quaint cuteness of Asians. Still, the show presents Rodgers and Hammerstein striving—ever with one eye on the box office—toward serious accomplishment.
Most notably, they here tested themselves as well as their audience with a plotline that lands decidedly on the tragic side—something new to Broadway musical audiences in the early 1950s. At the same time, they aimed far above an easy romantic dilemma and solution by presenting two characters—the King and Anna—who are deeply in love with each other, yet restrained from acting on their love other than through grand political gestures.
One of the most admirable and memorable moments arrives with the ballet within the play, “The Little House of Uncle Thomas,” This tour-de-force, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli based on Jerome Robbins’ brilliant original choreography, pays tribute to non-western dramatic traditions as well as the once-ubiquitous American homespun theatrical practice (now long dead) of dramatizing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As in any good old-fashioned Broadway show, principal themes are reflected and mirrored throughout: the budding sense of understanding between Anna and the King echoes in the slowly developing friendship between Anna’s son Louis (Rhyees Stump) and the Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, the latter represented with convincing sullenness by Anthony Chan. Meanwhile, the impossible love between Anna and the King is mirrored in more traditional form in the forbidden love between the King’s concubine Tuptim (Q Lin) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). The script admittedly gives Lun Tha little to work with; more significantly, however, Panmeechao’s voice never quite blends convincingly with Lin’s sweet, light soprano in the show’s obligatory love duet, “We Kiss in a Shadow.”
Michael Yeargan’s grandly evocative sets and Catherine Zuber’s brilliant costumes are nothing less than opulent, apropos the exotic, spectacular nature of the show—and fit nicely into this grand venue. A traditional acoustic orchestra, drawn from the cream of local professionals and conducted with élan by Gerald Steichen, is miles above the over-digitalized accompanying ensembles that often afflict touring shows.
The King and I is packed with iconic, hummable tunes that made their way quickly into the hearts and souls of America in the 1950s, ranging from “Hello, Young Lovers” to “Getting to Know You” to “I Whistle a Happy Tune”; the one weakness of this production is that the singing, while always competent and at the very least pretty good, hardly ever reaches the soaring level a show like this, essentially an operetta, demands. However, dusky-voiced contralto Joan Almedilla, as Lady Thiang, demonstrates convincingly how to handle the vocal treasures of this score in the darkly reflective “Something Wonderful.”
In spite of some built-in flaws in outlook, The King and I, with its bold ambition, intriguing character conflicts, and melodic score stands as one of the finest examples of that great American cultural accomplishment, the Broadway operetta. Except for some vocal weaknesses, this production is a worthy realization of a work that can still, three quarters of a century after its premiere, thrill an audience and leave viewers fumbling for their hankies.