With the whoosh of a gorgeous silky curtain, the audience is immediately spirited away into a far-off land in the revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein (R&H) classic, “The King and I.” Playing now through February 26, 2017 on the Connor Palace stage of Playhouse Square, this old-school musical is a rich example of American musical theater history, and proves that the story and style are still relevant today. The Bartlett Sher-directed musical is based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon.
A grand boat enters the stage and we are introduced to school teacher Anna Leonowens and her son Louis, who’ve just arrived from Wales. Through the song “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” Anna teaches Louis a trick about not being afraid, and then they are whisked into the world of Siam.
In the Royal Palace, we meet the King of Siam, his Head Wife and their son, along with a Prime Minister, and the King’s 67 children (and counting – he started late in life!)
Also in the Royal Palace are Lun Tha and his lover, Tuptim. Although they love each other very much, Tuptim is a “gift” from the Burmese King to the King of Siam, so the relationship must remain a secret.
Good ol’ R&H are known for many things in their productions. With a breadth of work that includes “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” and “The Sound of Music,” their stories all have a mix of both joyful and very serious tones, and we do not leave the theater without at least a character or two having died in the story.
“The King and I” deals with the topics of slavery, women’s equality, polygamy, and of cultural differences, amongst other things. Regarding the frustrations of dealing with foreigners, and with The King’s references to building a wall around Siam, the production even gives a quick wink to some of the political frustrations with which the United States is currently wrestling. All of this is wrapped into the charm of the children’s curiosity, the excitement of a dinner party, and the intricacy of interacting with a whole new world of possibilities.
‘Getting to Know You’ with Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna) and Children (photo – Matthew Murphy)
The actors do a fine job both with characters and songs. Laura Michelle Kelly is a bold yet caring Anna. As a widowed, working woman raising a child on her own, the character of Anna is a bit of a trailblazer in Siam, and Kelly’s got the right mix of persistence and charisma to bring all things “scientific” to the children of the palace. Her singing voice is lovely, and her renditions of “Getting to Know You” and “Hello Young Lovers” are especially sweet.
Jose Llana takes on the role of The King of Siam. With the role having been most famously played by Yul Brynner in the 1956 film version of the show, Llana does an admirable job of living up to the title of royalty. The character of The King is one of pomp and ego, yet with a likability. Llana is successful in also bringing strength and stubbornness to the part, along with a slice of contemporary snark that sneaks out here and there. His vocals work well with the score, and his characterizations are especially delightful in songs like “A Puzzlement.” And of course his catchphrase is very endearing: “Etc., Etc., Etc.”
The orchestra (conducted by Gerald Steichen) has a good, solid sweeping tone and nuance that’s worthy of the R&H production.
The movement (choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, based on the original choreography of Jerome Robbins) is fluid and mesmerizing.
The polka-style dance between Anna and The King to the well-known “Shall We Dance” is certainly a highlight of the performance. The King counts “One Two Three AND” with Anna’s gorgeous gown billowing as they circle the stage between huge flying columns.
Act 2 features a lengthy play-within-a-play retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in which the cast dances through their own version called “Small House of Uncle Thomas.” The Asian-inspired movement is enthralling and elegantly executed. It also moves the story forward by demonstrating the parallels between the “Small House” characters, and the plight of the servants in the Palace.
The scenery (by Michael Yeargan) and lights (by Donald Holder) create an imposing yet exquisite setting, filled with immense moving square columns, a great wall, and a complex mix of washes that fill every space (from classroom to ballroom) with a royal hue.
The costumes, including wigs and makeup (Catherine Zuber/Tom Watson), are elaborate and stunning, showcasing the period styles of both Britain and Siam.
For a large dose of theatrical nostalgia, visit 1860’s Bangkok with “The King and I,” running at the Connor Palace at Playhouse Square now through February 26, 2017. For tickets, visit www.playhousesquare.org, or call the Playhouse Square Ticket Office at 216-241-6000. Ticket prices range from $10-$110.
Show Run Time: 2 hours 50 minutes (includes intermission)