Nearly 60 years after their last show hit Broadway ("The Sound of Music" in 1959), Rodgers and Hammerstein still remain one of the most recognizable names in musical theatre. "The King and I," now playing at the Hollywood Pantages, makes it abundantly clear why their work is still some of the most frequently produced theater around the world. The production, a lavish, Tony-winning import from the Lincoln Center, is a stunning, lush revival that takes you back to both nineteenth-century Bangkok and the mid-century days when Broadway musicals were the height of American cultural output.
"The King and I" tells the story of Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly), an English widow, who takes a job as a teacher in the royal court of the King of Siam (Jose Llan) and finds herself embroiled in a cultural battle of East meets West. Through the course of their time together, Anna and the King learn valuable lessons from each other and come to respect (and even love) the other.
Rodgers and Hammerstein excelled at embedding social and political commentary within their unforgettable musical scores, tackling themes like racism, bigotry, cultural sensitivity, and more. "The King and I" is no exception, and the Lincoln Center production re-inserts lines and content that had been censored when the show premiered in 1951 to strengthen that aspect. The show's delights are numerous – from recognizing the tune of nearly every song (there's few that aren't still standards) to the delightful surprise of how brazen and feminist Anna is and how deftly the issue of placing Western expectations on Eastern traditions is handled.
From the first opening strains of the overture that winds its way through such classics as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers," and "Shall We Dance?", it's clear that this revival is something special. The curtain opens to reveal a silhouette of a Bangkok riverfront at sunset and a life-size boat bringing Anna and her son to Siam – it's an extravagant, beautiful, and surprising opening that belies the lush care that defines this production.
The show's rich crimsons, burnt oranges, shimmering golds, deep greens, and delicate lilacs that dot everything from Michael Yeargan's set pieces to Catherine Zuber's dazzling costumes lend a literal showcase for the heft and richness of a play that, like a fine wine, has only improved with age. No expense has been spared, which enhances the story's believability and highlights the cultural value of Siam's royal kingdom under siege by European imperialism.
What really makes this production sing though, beyond its luscious production values, is its superb cast. There isn't a weak member in the bunch, and it's a joy to see a massive ensemble onstage at a time when slashed production budgets have ten actors pulling triple or quadruple duty.
Laura Michelle Kelly is a revelation as Anna, imbuing with her a modernist sense of passion and zeal, while also taking care to keep her within the confines of her 19th-century identity. Her voice was made to carry the soprano melodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and each song she takes on goes down like silky hot chocolate on a cold winter evening. Anna is a woman out of place in her time, which is perhaps why the exotic realm of Siam becomes a home for her. Throughout the show, she quivers on the edge of untapped emotions, serving as a channel for the audience, while never truly defying the bounds of propriety. Her overwhelming concern for Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and her against-her-better judgment respect and love for the King threaten to burst forth at all times, but it is her restraint that defines her, and Kelly walks this line expertly.
She is given an adept and formidable opponent in Jose Llana as the King. He puts a unique spin on the role, bestowing the King with a gleam-in-his-eye sense of humor and a carefully concealed uncertainty. Yul Brynner, who originated and defined the role, casts a long shadow, but Llana makes the King entirely his own – a man caught between the way things have always been done and his desire to move Siam into the modern age. Llana seems less an imposing figure who gradually gives way and more a wise, if commanding, ruler who sees an irresistible sense and allure in Anna that is tempered by his own pride. His humor and commanding stage presence add depth and nuance to a character that could easily become caricature in the intervening years since the play's debut.
One of the particular delights is the chemistry between Kelly and Llana. Each always feels one step ahead of the other, and to watch them evolve from an employer and employee at loggerheads to two individuals with deep feeling and sentiment for each other is the production's chief delight. Their penultimate number, "Shall We Dance?", whisks you away on a cloud of romance and wonder – Kelly seems miraculously light on her feet in her voluminous gown, and the palpable affection between the two threatens to overwhelm them both. Never before has that number left a lump in my throat.
Kelly and Llana are flanked by two superb supporting actresses in Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang and Manna Nichols as Tuptim. The women stand at opposing extremes – Thiang, a devoted and respected, if now undesired, wife of the King, and Tuptim, the object of the King's eye, but a woman whose heart belongs to another. Their tension with the King at the center paints a vivid picture of the crossroads the King and Siam finds itself at, trapped between rote devotion to tradition and a push for contemporary values. At first, it seems peculiar that Almedilla and Llana have minimal chemistry, but it eventually emerges as a powerful choice, allowing her to fill in the wounded vulnerability of a scorned wife who still clings proudly to her position of power as the mother of the heir to the throne. Almedilla instills her Thiang with a fierce, but quiet pride that stands in contrast to the youthful rage and indignation of Nichols' Tuptim.
The King and I could easily become a stagey, stuffy period piece, relying on stereotype and caricature to tell a musicalized tale of East meets West. This touring production defies that and produces a gorgeous, lush work that breathes with the color and vitality of our current era – it feels both a prescient and timely story while also bearing the hallmarks of its rich past and place in the history of the American musical. The King and I is a story about the tension between old and new, tradition and modernity, and in this production, it stands at a crossroads as a moving, stunning testament to both.
"The King and I" is playing at the Hollywood Pantages (6233 Hollywood Blvd.) through January 21st, 2017. Tickets start at $35. For more information visit, www.HollywoodPantages.com.
To contact Associate Arts and Culture Editor Maureen Lee Lenker, write her at firstname.lastname@example.org