By Gloria Maria T. Federigan
WASHINGTON D.C. The 2015 Tony-winning revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I” proves once again that old show never dies, it just gets better and better. Now on its national tour, this Lincoln Theater production led by director Bartlett Sher has come to the Kennedy Center with sterling cast of actors, singers, and dancers, along with dazzling costumes and set designs.
A classic musical, “The King and I” has been revived four times on Broadway since its premiere in 1951. The 2015 revival won four Tony Awards, including one for Sher for the Best Director of Revival Musical and another for Kelli O’Hara for Best Performance of an Actress in a Musical. The late Yul Brynner starred in the lead role of the musical’s debut.
The musical tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a widowed British schoolteacher who went to Bangkok in 1860’s on the invitation of the King of Siam to tutor the King’s children and wives in English and Western culture. A tempestuous and unconventional relationship develops between the King and Anna which is highlighted by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic songs “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Something Wonderful.”
Jose Llana, Philippine-born actor and singer, is in the lead role of King whose performance is nothing short of magnificent, although one can sense his inner struggle to get away from the images of Yul Brynner’s Broadway and Hollywood performances. But he is on his own lordly and superb stance with his rendition—in a modulated voice-projection—of “A Puzzlement.”
As Sher has commented on Llana’s Broadway performance as the “King,” he is “incredibly lucky” to have Llana on the National Tour. “He brings such joy and virility and strength to the King…one of Broadway’s great talents.” (For more on Llana, please see “Direct Talk” column elsewhere in this issue.)
Laura Michelle Kelley’s Anna brings to the Tour one of Broadway’s best voices. Her performance supplements grit and grace to a character beset by anxieties and unfamiliar surroundings. But her haunting advices “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” make up for all the imagined ill-forebodings.
Another Philippine-born actor and singer, Joan Almedilla plays Lady Thiang, the King’s first wife and counsel. Almedilla’s “Something Wonderful,” a plea, rendered with a soprano voice, for understanding of the King’s sometimes erratic behavior brings to the whole show the promised grace and elegance of a king’s court. Her voice is as intoxicating as the last sip of a superb wine. Her several performances on Broadway followed her being discovered while performing on “Showtime at The Apollo.”
The performances and singing talents of Manna Nichols, playing Tuptim, and Kavin Panmeechao, as Lun Tha, forlorn lovers both, are equally memorable and dazzling. Their rendition of a duet “We Kiss in a Shadow,” tells all about the doom awaiting their tragic relationship.
Of course, the credibility of the show presented in an almost forgotten period rests on the stage sets and costume designs. Michael Yeargan use of six four-squared moveable posts, covered in dark purple cloth embedded by Thai graphics, lends the desired environment from which the actors on stage can move about. The actors’ characterizations of their roles require authenticity which Catherine Zuber’s costumes easily provides; lead actors are provided sets of costumes to don for each scene.
The highlight of the show is a ballet performance, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” staged presentation of a book mentioned by the schoolteacher Anna to the King’s children. Choreography for the show, most of which was based on the original work of the late Jerome Robbins, was provided by Christopher Gattelli.
“The King and I” runs at the Kennedy Center until August 20, 2017.