Review: ‘The King and I’ at the Hippodrome Theatre

The lovely 2015 Lincoln Center staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is back in town, granting new viewers a rare audience with the king of Siam. This national touring production at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre treats Director Bartlett Sher’s thoughtful revival (and Shelley Butler’s restaging of it) with respect, even as it comes up short at times.

Angela Baumgardner and Children in The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Angela Baumgardner and Children in The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

To paraphrase a lyric from the score, this version “does not always do what you would want it to, but now and then it does something wonderful.”

Set Designer Michael Yeargan certainly places his best foot forward in the opening tableau of a dockside landing at Bangkok, circa 1861. Against the fiery amber skyline of what was then known as Siam, passengers on a harbor barge from an unseen ship are soon set upon by a waterfront population of beggars who must be beaten back by soldiers of the king.

That certainly establishes the play as something worthy of modern appraisal. It introduces a subtext of caste, privilege and royal exploitation that is usually buried in the subplot of the illicit lovers, Tuptim and Lun Tha.

Director Sher sharpened the geopolitical realities of the time, adding dialogue about the French colonization of Cambodia, for example, and the strategic importance of Siam to the developing west. But the politics are not allowed to overshadow the book’s character-driven humor or sentimentality. It is indeed a gift to have more context for the king when expressing “A Puzzlement” over matters of national treachery and distrust.

The historical perspective also adds dimension to the play’s still-trenchant insights into the politics of male-female psychology.

Pedro Ka'awaloa as King Mongkut in 'The King and I'. Photo by Mathew Murphy. 
Pedro Ka’awaloa as King Mongkut in ‘The King and I’. Photo by Mathew Murphy.

The adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein remains much the same, retelling the true story of widowed Welsh schoolmarm Anna Leonowens and her growing affection for the prickly king who engages her to tutor his flock of children and wives. His eldest son, the crown prince Chulalongkorn, would grow up to become the real-life father of modern Thailand. Anna’s young son Louis hardly merits a footnote.

Fans of the 1951 musical should really rush out to see this version, as it restores some often-cut material.

A number of song reprises have been returned to the score, along with two choice gems heard here in their entirety: The culture-clash novelty number “Western People Funny,” and Anna’s shout-out to feminist independence, “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?”

Choreographers Christopher Gattelli and Greg Zane also recreate the charming palace folk-dance interludes envisioned by the late Jerome Robbins for the original. Even with the artful moves of Akina Kitazawa and the other dancers, however, the “Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet” amounts to little more than a placeholder for some needed spark of genius.

The latest Anna Leonowens, Angela Baumgardner, has all the precision and grace required in the role of the headstrong teacher. She brings a truly lovely singing voice to her string of standards “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Shall We Dance” and “Getting to Know You.” On opening night, though, her signature solo of “Hello, Young Lovers” could not reach the still, emotional depths of Hammerstein’s lyrical profundity. Some of her tussles with the king also missed the necessary undergirding of outrage.

Pedro Ka’awaloa has an awfully big throne to fill as King Mongkut. We have seen more commanding monarchs, though his superb comic timing never fails to get the intended laughs. The consternation he expresses in “A Puzzlement” could show more of the urgency of a ruler grappling, however bemusedly, with life-or-death dilemmas.

The sweetest vocal sounds all evening are created by Paulina Yeung as Tuptim, notably in “We Kiss In a Shadow,” and by Deanna Choi as Lady Thiang in the masterful “Something Wonderful.” They both give first-rate acting performances as well.

Timothy Matthew Flores makes for an acceptable enough Prince Chulalongkorn, as does Hayden Bercy as young Louis, though his diction could stand sharpening. Bern Tan as Kralahome and Dongwood Kang as Lun Tha provide strong and credible support throughout.

The road-tour staging by Director Shelley Butler could tone down some of the hyperactive darting around in “We Kiss In the Shadows,” but mostly it sustains a high level of achievement. The wisely cast ensemble and the professional costuming of Catherine Zuber facilitate our suspension of disbelief.

As always at the Hippodrome in recent seasons, the visiting crew is given first-rate technical assistance in mounting the best possible presentation of its wares. Sound, lighting and the live musical direction of David Aaron Brown are all top-notch, allowing the audience to drift away on happy tunes and stolen kisses to ancient worlds whose shadows remain as deep as ever.

Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

The King and I plays through February 24, 2019, at the Hippodrome Theatre at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center — 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call (800) 982-ARTS, or purchase them online.