Swapping one beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein’s national tour production for another, the Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I made its Washington, D.C. premiere at The Kennedy Center Opera House for a month-long run, spectacularly headlining its classic summer season series.
Though the show was written more than 65 years ago and revived on Broadway four times since its 1951 debut, most recently in 2015 by Director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof), this latest revival exquisitely connects traditions of the 19th Century with the innovations of the modern era, tackling timely themes of tyranny, racism, sexism and feminism with stunning staging. It boasts beautifully updated period costumes (dazzlingly designed by Catherine Zuber) and remarkably eye-popping sets (brought to life by the visionary Michael Yeargan).
Loosely based on a true story and later developed in Margaret Landon’s novel, The King and I recounts the adventures of Anna Leonowens, convincingly portrayed by Laura Michelle Kelly. The widowed British school teacher arrives in 1860s Bangkok to educate the King of Siam’s (brilliantly played by Jose Llana) litany of wives and their children in English and western culture to keep pace with the progressing world stage.
Sher, together with Music Supervisor Ted Sperling, helms a delightfully diverse and consummate cast, led by Kelly and Llana. Beginning with her breathtaking rendition of “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from a prow of a ship as it glides dramatically across the stage and later with “Hello, Young Lovers,” Kelly is elegantly and effortlessly engaging, fully embodying her character to convey a refreshing authenticity. Similarly, Llana shines splendidly as a complex and quirky leader whose chauvinistic and imperious moments swiftly transition to humorous, clever quips and endearing sparks such as his pivotal moment with Kelly in “Shall We Dance.”
Joan Almedilla, as the King’s number one bride, Lady Thiang, rendered a richly-consuming and emotionally-earnest interpretation of “Something Wonderful” making for another striking scene. Likewise, another standout performance of “I Have Dreamed” by Kavin Panmeechao and Manna Nichols, as the doomed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim left a lasting noteworthy impression.
From the get-go, Gerald Steichen and the 18-piece orchestra were absolutely glorious in masterfully delivering Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s timeless music to perfection.
Magnificently produced, enchantingly staged, and gorgeously sung by an exceptional ensemble, Sher’s The King and I is a sheer masterpiece that should be on everyone’s list of must-sees this summer.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.