The King and I
The beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical polkas into the Pantages.
The national tour of director Bartlett Sher's revival of The King and I, now making a stop at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, is scrumptiously produced, a visual feast worthy of the exotic musical. At the center is a mountainous, layered performance by Jose Llana as the King of Siam — taking a role cemented by Yul Brenner for decades — and leaving his unique mark.
Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam, The King and I examines how a totalitarian society attempts to modernize. A teacher named Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) arrives in 1860s Siam to educate the many children of the King (Llana). The King has been raised to have the final word on everything, but he recognizes that the world has evolved and he wants Siam to join contemporary society. Anna and the King clash often and furiously, but their admiration for each other eventually grows into affection.
Rodgers and Hammerstein may have won the Pulitzer Prize for South Pacific but The King and I is their most complex work. Rodgers' underscoring lifts far-eastern influences and includes soaring melodies. Hammerstein's lyrics are inquisitive and wily. When in "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You," he rhymes polygamy with "a prig o' me," his influence over future protégé Stephen Sondheim is unmistakable. Hammerstein's book paints a portrait of two people attempting to make a connection, but both are trapped by their own tunnel vision. Utilizing dance to convey both a political and cultural interpretation of American slavery in "Small House of Uncle Thomas" and as an outlet for sexual tension in "Shall We Dance" are masterstrokes by a theatrical genius.
Llana could have easily cloned the usual Brenner interpretation of the king, but instead chooses an intriguing path, it feels as if he's decided his king had been forced to rule at a tragically young age and was never afforded a childhood. His is a king trapped in arrested development. His childlike faces and pontificating are tantrums instead of the harsh rules of a monarch. Even his adoption of Western society can be deciphered as the wonderment of a child. Kelly brings cultured charm and endearment for everyone around her as Anna, but her voice sounds curiously off, like she's swallowing her enunciation. She also loses a major opportunity in her final showdown with the king, calling him a barbarian with all the force of a shrug. This should destroy him but she almost whispers it, ruining the impact of the climax.
Joan Almedilla makes a beguiling Lady Thiang, always aware of the shenanigans about, but the weak spots in her voice show. During one moment of "Western People Funny," she widens her mouth to sing, but nothing comes out. Manna Nichols, who has a remarkable singing voice, has been misdirected as Tuptim. From her first scene, she arrives triumphant, like a samurai, not a meek little girl sold to be a concubine. Her tone is flippant and defiant, which feels out of character. It also diminishes her attack of the king during "Small House of Uncle Thomas," making it less a break from conformity and more like her once again putting the king in his place.
Christopher Gattelli's choreography enhances Jerome Robbins' iconic moves from the original production, particularly in the well-documented "Uncle Thomas" ballet. The orchestra sounds rich and precise, allowing Rodgers' magical melodies to emerge intact. Michael Yeargan's sets work perfectly. The moving oriental columns give a sense of the vast palace without being literal, while the blossoming trees that hide the secretive lovers strike a romantic mood. Catherine Zuber's Tony-winning costumes are exquisite. The Victorian dresses versus the Asian imaginings of those hoop skirts and corsets are insightful.
Though almost three hours in length, this production of The King and I zooms by at rapid speed. The collection of memorable songs combined with the tight libretto that explores social and sexual politics makes for a majestic evening for the entire family.