More than sixty years after its debut, The King and I remains one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most popular and enduring musicals. The handsome national touring company of the recent Broadway revival is currently playing at the Academy of Music. This production is being featured by the Kimmel Center as a part of their Broadway Philadelphia series.
Richard Rodgers’ timeless melodies hold up beautifully, and Oscar Hammerstein II’s graceful and clever lyrics shape the characters perfectly. However, some parts of the show have not aged well. Hammerstein’s script is often trite and creaky, and lacking in dramatic tension; the conflicts are resolved in a pretty routine way. And the culture clash at the heart of the story is often uncomfortably patronizing. Yet The King and I is never boring, and director Bartlett Sher’s impressive production, with its emphasis on the relationship between the two main characters, makes for an evening with a taste of grandeur.
Much of that grandeur comes from Michael Yeargan’s sets; columns lowered from above and curtains pulled across the stage by actors create a fluid sense of movement. However, something has been lost in the transition from Lincoln Center’s in-the-round staging to the Academy’s proscenium: the set changes have become noisier, and some of the scenes (like the second act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”) seem too crowded, even on a large stage like the Academy’s. Catherine Zuber’s costumes burst with color and invention, and Donald Holder’s lighting is just right for songs like “We Kiss in a Shadow.” And choreographer Christopher Gattelli has added some new steps and a bright polish to Jerome Robbins’ work from the 1951 original.
Part of what makes The King and I work so well is that it has a heroine the audience can identify with and root for. That’s Anna Leonowens, the real-life British governess who, accompanied by her son Louis (Graham Montgomery), went to Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s to instruct the king’s dozens of children. And this production has an especially endearing Anna in Laura Michelle Kelly, who wins over the king’s court with a warm smile, precise diction, and a gorgeous, sparkling soprano. Jose Llana is a worthy sparring partner as the stubborn and imperious king, matching up with an equally tenacious Kelly. His bursts of comic exasperation in “A Puzzlement” are terrific, and he plays off Kelly well in their battle of wills.
There are also strong, touching performances by Joan Almedilla, who plays the most senior of the king’s many wives (she delivers a lovely and moving “Something Wonderful”), and by Manna Nichols as the troubled Tuptim (providing a delicate “My Lord and Master”). Nichols, who also played Tuptim in the Walnut Street Theatre’s fine production five seasons ago (starring Rachel York), is paired with Kavin Panmeechao, as her lover Lun Tha, on two numbers; he has a sturdy and likable presence, but on the night I attended, his voice didn’t have the suppleness and range necessary for “I Have Dreamed.”
The King and I blends serious and comic elements in an agreeable way, but it’s more respectable than stirring; it doesn’t touch the heart in a way that elevates it to the pantheon of the greatest musicals. It sometimes seems like a dusty relic from another era (especially during that too-lengthy second act ballet). But when a vintage show is done with this energy and creativity, it’s hard to complain. And when the audience claps in time as Kelly and Llana make those familiar polka steps to “Shall We Dance?,” the joy is absolutely contagious.
A word of warning: this show starts promptly at its announced curtain time – so don’t even think of getting there a few minutes late. The king will not approve!
Running Time: 3 hours, with an intermission.
The King and I plays through April 2, 2017, and is presented by The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts at the Academy of Music – 204 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.