The King and I
Richard Rodgers (Music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (Lyrics & Book)
Based upon the novel Anna and the King by Margaret Landon
|Jose Llana & Laura Michelle Kelly|
When a gloriously played overture pours forth hit after hit right out of the Great American Songbook, there is no doubt that the musical to follow is likely to be an evening to be savored. If the musical is one that has been revived on Broadway four times since its 1951 debut, has won multiple Tonys in both the premiere and subsequent outings, is now in its fifth national tour, and continues to grace stages at every level many times each year, then anticipation is even higher for a great evening with an old friend. The fact that the current touring show landing at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre comes with a spectacularly stellar cast in an immensely impressive production means that Richard Rodgers’ (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II’s (lyrics and book) The King and I is a sure-fire guarantee to please both the first-timer and the aficionado of the famed pair’s fifth, joint creation.
Based on a novel (Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King) that finds its roots in the actual King Mongkut, ruler of Siam 1861-1868, and in the British governess, Anna Leonowens, whom he hires to westernize his royal children, The King and I finds some truth in its story how the King is desperately trying to keep his country from falling under the rule of European powers as are many of his neighboring nations. History shows that the actual king in fact was able to keep tiny Siam independent through his efforts. Other aspects of the story Mr. Hammerstein pens are rooted in the historical occurrences, including the fact that the first Anna did live in the palace grounds until a brick house was built nearby for her. Whether that Anna put up quite the fuss to get her own house that Hammerstein makes so central in the telling of his Anna is doubtful – a battle of wills between the King and the governess that begins almost as soon as she steps off the boat and lets the awaiting Kralahome (the King’s prime minister) know in no uncertain terms that she expects that contract promise to be fulfilled.
As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly displays from the get-go upon arriving in Siam her fiery defiance with a pointing finger, stern looks, and firm vocals -- all aimed at the King’s shocked emissary (Brian Rivera). This almost cocky confidence leads her to assert her demands for a private, brick house time and again, even to the King himself. But this same Anna is also the one that melts time and again to show another side of herself, softening her stance, demeanor, and tone -- first when meeting some of the King’s sixty-seven children and later as her liking and affection for the King himself clearly increases. Director Bartlett Sher clearly highlights these contrasting aspects of Anna throughout this production – a decision that provides much fun, nuance, and intrigue in the blossoming relationship between the King and the Governess. (However, one has to doubt if Mr. Hammerstein’s original storyline would have seen this English woman take the same stance if the royal employer she faced were European versus Asian – one troubling aspect of the story that a modern audience member must gulp a bit in order to accept.)
When her desired house is not first and foremost in her mind, Anna exudes a love and excitement for the adventure she has set upon with her young son, Louis (Graham Montgomery). Ms. Kelley’s first sung words spill out with crystal-clear chirpiness as she and Louis duet in “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” When she fondly reminisces of her late husband, Tom, and then calls out in song to say, “Hello, Young Lovers” (“whoever you are”), she so easily allows each note to float at a pace and with such distinctive singularity that as a listener, there is an ability to grab hold and relish each rich, beautiful syllable. And just as wonderful, while she sings, her broad smile reaches out into the outer and upper regions of the theatre – almost as if she were actually looking at and smiling at every individual there. Ms. Kelley becomes an Anna to deservedly join as an equal in a long line of all the famous ones before her (Gertrude Lawrence, Eileen Brennan, Maureen McGovern, Angela Lansbury, and many more including most recently, Tony-winning Kelli O’Hara).
|Laura Michelle Kelly & Jose Llana|
One of her best moments is not when she is singing but when she allows her total comedic side to shine as the King gets her finally to agree never to have her head any higher than his royal noggin and then proceeds to lower himself position by position until finally prostrate on the floor. Anna, in her enormously hooped skirt, becomes a mixture of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett in her exaggerated twists and flops, grimaces and grins, as she makes sure her head in fact does not eclipse his.
Her royal partner in this charade of wills is Jose Llana, who also played the King in the latest Broadway revival. Mr. Llana is richly and powerfully exact and expressive in song (as in “A Puzzlement”). But when his King speaks or sings, Mr. Llana’s ever-moving hands and eyebrows say as much or more as anything that comes out of his mouth. This King has his own stubborn streak that fully matches Anna’s; but he also has, like she, his own soft and humor-loving side. This is particularly true when his children parade in front of him in the eye-catching, warm-hearted, and funny “The March of the Siamese Children” (one of several masterful sets choreographed by Christopher Gattelli).
Equal impressiveness of voice and acting come from a number of other key contributors. Lady Thiang, the head wife that so deeply loves her kingly husband (even with all his faults that she clearly acknowledges), delivers one of the evening’s highlights with “Something Wonderful.” Joan Almedilla explains to Anna her love for her King/husband with a voice that pleads in tone for Anna’s understanding while it also teaches what true love really means. With each ensuing stanza, a climatic intensity slowly approaches note by note, totally revealing the depth of her feelings for her husband.
Love, in this case a forbidden one, is also the focus of relationship between Tuptim, the King’s newest wife and a ‘gift’ from the Burmese king, and the Burmese envoy and student who brings her to Siam, Lun Tha. Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao beautifully blend their voices in notes clearly interlocked in love as they sing “We Kiss in a Shadow,” with Ms. Nichols reaching effortlessly to secure emotion-driven, tonal heights. The two once again draw huge audience praise as they sing of their doomed, not-to-be union: “In these dreams, I’ve loved you so that by now I think ... I will love being loved by you” (“I Have Dreamed”).
|The Cast of "The King and I"|
And there is so much more that could be said in praise of this magnificent musical and production. The totally charming “Getting to Know You” featuring Anna, the royal children and the wives; the visually, culturally, and musically show-stopper ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” narrated by Tuptim and presented by a host of royal singers and dancers; and of course the much-anticipated, fully appreciated “Shall We Dance?” where Anna teaches the King to waltz as they both step close to mutually expressed love – These are all favorite moments that returnees cannot help but savor and first-timers will never forget.
Much of the evening’s impact also comes from a production team that has brought the awe and quality of New York’s Great White Way to Market Street’s Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. From the opening moments when a huge sea-faring boat emerges to dock in a bustling, red-sky Siam harbor, the sets designed by Michael Yeargan create an exotic set of scenes. His royal palace scenes majestically rise and shift with tall, oriental columns that dance in a slow ballet across the wide stage. Dotting the scenes with an array of color and with an enchanting mixture of East and West are the costumes of Catherine Uber. Donald Holder’s lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound designs further suggest a faraway dreamland of the foreign but familiar. Bringing all the atmospheric magic together is the underlying beauty of the mixed local and touring orchestra, conducted by Gerald Steichen who clearly knows how to take a Richard Rodgers score and ensure it both recalls what we fondly remember as well as makes it all sound once again fresh and exciting.
And now this reviewer must confess: I love Rogers and Hammerstein musicals -- each and all of them. I always enter with both anticipation and with dread, hoping for another evening of being swept away in the well-loved music and story and yet afraid that my expectations are raised so high that disappointment is assured. With the current SHN presentation of the touring The King and I, I walked away elated with not the slightest bit of regret.
Rating: 5 E
The King and I continues through December 11, 2016, at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy