The beloved musical The King and I opened the Nashville leg of its current National Tour on Tuesday to a packed house at TPAC’s Jackson Hall. My date for the evening was my eldest niece, who at 40 had never seen the show and knew nothing about it. I, on the other hand, have seen it at least a dozen times, included half a dozen National Tours beginning with Yul Brenner’s final tour with the show back in the mid-80s. Heck I even saw Marie Osmond starring as Anna back in the 90s. Regardless of whether you’ve seen it once, twice, a dozen times, or this tour marks your first time, you’ll no doubt leave the theatre filled with enchantment.
Theater-goers have loved Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical extravaganza The King and I since it debuted on Broadway in 1951 starring Gertrud Lawrence and a young, but decidedly commanding Yul Brenner as fictionalized versions of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam. Leonowens herself had laid the groundwork for the piece nearly a century earlier when she detailed her experiences as the royal governess in her 1870 memoirs The English Governess and the Court of Siam, but theatre being, well, theatrical, Rodgers and Hammerstein drew more of their story from the highly fictionalized bestselling 1944 novel The King and I by Margaret Landon.
Of course the story garnered a much wider audience in 1954 when Brenner reclaimed his royal role in the musical movie adaptation co-starring Deborah Kerr and Rita Moreno. Side Note: Interestingly, of the three leads for the film, only Brenner sang his role. Kerr’s voice was dubbed by frequent singing dub artist Marni Nixon while Moreno’s singing was actually dubbed by Leona Gordon.
Over the years, The King and I has enjoyed success both as a regional favorite and on Broadway. In 2015, the fourth Broadway revival under the direction of Bartlett Sher with choreography by Christopher Gattelli and gorgeous sets and costumes by Michael Yearn and Catherine Zuber, debuted. During the production’s 538 performance run, the show garnered nine Tony nods, winning four.
The current tour, which began just five months after the Broadway run closed, brings Bartlett’s gloriously opulent vision to the masses. Having already been playing across the US for more than a year the precision, chemistry and camaraderie of the cast and crew makes for a glorious evening of theatre.
Starring Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna, Jose Llana as The King (he was among the actors who played the role during the show’s recent Broadway run) and featuring Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, Brian Rivera as Kralahome, Q Lim as Tuptim and Kavin Panmeechao as Lun Tha, The King and I is as grand and regal as ever.
From the show’s visually spectacular opening in which Anna and her young son Louis (Rhymes Stump) arrive via a small sailing vessel to their new home in Siam, with a mysteriously ominous sky in the background, the audience is captivated. A quick and seamless maneuver of the ship’s deck and it’s transformed into the bridge of the dock, to me a symbol of Anna’s pending journey and inevitable connection with the stalwart king. Yeargan’s sets, alongside Donald Holder’s lighting feature prominently throughout the show, this opening scene is just one beautiful example.
Being a Rodgers and Hammerstein work, it’s the music that really draws the audience in, and like most of their collaborations, The King and I is peppered with recognizable tunes. Up first is I Whistle a Happy Tune. As Anna, Kelly embodies the beauty of Kerr’s Anna and kicks it up just a notch with a self-assuredness that’s refreshing. Other well-known Anna moments come with the hopeful Hello Young Lovers, the assertive yet playful Shall I Tell You What I Think of You? and the sweet Getting to Know You (those royal kids are just the cutest!).
As charming and gorgeous as Kelly is, especially in those stunning gowns by Zuber, the best moments of the show come when she’s sparring, flirting and yes, dancing with Llana. As many times as I’ve seen the show, I still get a little ‘eye sweat’ when near the end of Act 2, they set aside their differences and embrace in magically choreographed harmony for Shall We Dance?. On the ride home, my niece and I both marveled at the choreography in this scene, not just by the two leads, but by the gilded columns that also move and sweep back and forth across the stage, giving the illusion that Anna and The King are dancing along the palace’s entire exterior patio.
Speaking of the set and direction, I love the scene changes, during which a member of then ensemble pulls a shimmering drape from one side of the stage to the other, bringing to mind the idea of perhaps one of the King’s many wives drawing the drape to allow visitors a peek inside the palace walls.
On the subject of walls, even though I have seen the show numerous times, and perhaps because the night I attended the show, there was a certain State of the Union address being broadcast on television, I had never took notice of a line within the show in which the King suggests building a wall around Siam to keep outside influence away from his court. Other timely themes abound, what with the notion of the King’s multiple wives being his property, and Anna’s quest for a equality and the right for her voice to be heard. Timely indeed, but not so much so that there’s anything remotely political about the performance. After all, the show’s some sixty years old, surely we’ve changed.
The aforementioned duet with Kelly’s Anna on Shall We Dance? might The King’s best-known moment, but thanks to Llana’s nuanced performance, The King has many memorable ones. His reaction to his children upon their introduction to Anna shows a charming softer side. During A Puzzlement, he reveals not only his staunch egotistical nature, but a glimmer of curiosity and maybe even a willingness to modernize. A favorite non-musical moment comes at the end of Act 1 when Anna visits him in his study and he insists her head be lower than his at all times out of respect for the throne.
Almedilla showcases her vocal talent as Lady Thiang with yet another of the show’s more well-known tunes, Something Wonderful, which also features a trademark Rodgers and Hammerstein move, incorporating operatic vocals into a modern show. In Act 2, she shows her lighter side with the always entertaining Western People Funny.
Q Lim is just lovely as Tuptim, a ‘gift’ to The King. My Lord and Master is another beautiful operatic number, gorgeous, but profoundly sad in nature. Her duet with Kavin Panmeechao on We Kiss in a Shadow is equally sad because they are forced to hid their feelings, but also one of the show’s most romantic moments. Q Lim and the company are also the focus of one of the show’s more interesting moments, The Small House of Uncle Thomas ballet. Another trademark of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, nearly all of their midcentury works feature a dreamlike ballet sequence that at times seems both out of place, but so perfectly executed you can’t image the show without it. To his credit, choreographer Gattelli plays splendid homage to legendary original King and I choreographer, Jerome Robbins during this sequence and the entire show. Simply breathtaking.
Just as the ship had transformed into the bridge, near the close of the show, there’s another seamless set transformation. When The King is on his deathbed (Is it really a Spoiler when the show’s been around for more than half a century?). Anna pays a final touching visit, as the King’s eldest son, his young heir takes his rightful place as Siam’s new ruler, The King’s bed transforms into his funeral bier. Spectacular from start to finish, for anyone to miss the current National Tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I would indeed be a puzzlement.
The King and I continues at TPAC’s Jackson Hall with shows now thru Sunday, February 4th with Friday and Saturday evening performances at 8 p.m., Saturday Matinee at 2 p.m., a Sunday Matinee at 1 p.m. and a final Nashville show on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.Tickets range in price from $45 to $85. Click Here for more information or to purchase tickets.
Can’t make the Nashville leg of The King and I? The tour continues with currently announced dates reaching across the US and into Canada from now through Summer with new 2018/2019 tour dates to be scheduled. Click Here to see the full schedule, or check out The King and I online, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
Following The King and I, TPAC continues the current season with The Illusionist February 16-18, Cabaret February 27-March 4, Wicked March 28-April 22, Waitress June 5-10 and Love Never Dies: The Phantom Returns June 19-24. Click Here for tickets or more information. You can also follow TPAC on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of The King and I, be sure and subscribe to Nashville Arts Critic by entering your email address in the “Newsletter” tab at the top of this article. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Tumbler. Interested in coverage of your performing arts events, be sure and drop me a line at email@example.com.