By Bob Evans
Maybe the music, (“Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers” “Something Wonderful”, “We Kiss in a Shadow”, “I Have Dreamed”); maybe the culture clash of East meets West; maybe the issue of slavery; maybe the issue of women’s place and voice; maybe the clash of wills; but, maybe, just maybe, the most memorable part of the multiple Tony Award-winning “The King and I” lies in the grand polka to “Shall We Dance” that constantly captivates audiences and remains the most indelible image of the entire show.
“The King and I” a national tour playing at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre for a one week run, beginning June 12 continues the string of successful revivals of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most celebrated successes. Noted for the musical score and the head-strong Anna Leonowens, a widowed school teacher who travels to Bangkok, Siam to teach the king’s children and wives, “The King and I,” deals with challenges faced in the 1860s as well as current society.
Based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” written by Anna Leonowens, recalls her time as the royal schoolteacher in Bangkok during the time of the British and French colonization period when those two countries were claiming control of the Eastern, smaller countries like Burma, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and others. The novel tells of Leonowens’ recollections, but is considered fiction as it is her memoir, not hard facts. History does point to her teaching of then Crown Prince Chulalongkorn helped him to move his country forward more so than other dynasties at the time just after America’s Civil War.
“The King and I” became a stage musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein supposedly at the request of British actress Gertrude Lawrence who wanted a new musical for her to star. The problem, a relatively unknown actor, Yul Brenner, stole the thunder and reigned supreme as THE King, on Broadway, in the film, and for subsequent revivals of the musical comedy. Brenner remains the image of the king, while Lawrence has faded from memory.
Starlight’s national tour of “The King and I” succeeds on all levels. The staging, the movement, the orchestration, the costumes, the lighting, the sound all create a Broadway masterpiece. And, what would “The King and I” be without an outstanding king? (I have seen poor renditions of this show with a less than stellar king–and they are unbearable.)
For this version Jose Llana reprised his Lincoln Center role of the king is grand fashion. Llana bring a fresh new look at the king and erases the stamped mimicry of Yul Brenner. His portrayal gives much more depth and comedy to the role. The audience sees his torment, his understanding of Siam’s problems, his need to face and learn Western ideas or fall victim of foreign overtaking. His exchanges with Anna range from tender to hurricane force. His portrayal gives a refreshing change to the time-stamped images of past productions.
Combined, the two leads develop a strong chemistry and creates magic and energy when they spar (which they do a lot). Both actors appear comfortable and confident in their portrayals. The power shifts constantly between them and allows them to show changes in their character beyond the plastic portrayals of other versions. Both leads are outstanding
Second leads, Lady Tiang (Joan Almedilla) possessed probably the most remarkable solo performance of the cast with her singing of “He Is Wonderful.” The song is touching and her clear soprano can send chills as she sings. As the two ill-fated lovers, Tuptim and LunTau, Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao perform the two love duets with a poignant pleading. “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” are stylized R & H love ballads from “The King and I.” This pair sing them with such emotion that the audience feels the electricity throughout the auditorium.
The only weakness in this show is the ballet segment “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” The segment is flawless in presentation and this represents R&H trying to insert a dance into the show. It also serves as a device to portray the king as barbaric and akin to U.S slave owners. The dance and costumes are eye-catching, but honestly, the segment just grinds the show to a halt and detracts from the story. But, it is part of the show, so like it or not, it remains part of “The King and I.”
“The King and I,” a huge Broadway hit continues some unheard of themes from the time of their original runs. “Carousel” was about spousal abuse. “South Pacific” showed prejudice against people of different nationalities. “Oklahoma” displayed a look at social injustice between Curly and Jud. “Flower Drum Song” showed a culture clash of traditional and modern. The pattern of the composers showed social problems of that past that remain current social problems. Most likely, that’s what keeps their musicals relevant to new audiences.
Another aspect of this production was the casting of persons who looked like their parts. This cast featured actors that looked more Asian than previous versions. The change is subtle but overwhelmingly inclusive of persons not of Caucasian ancestry. This change make all characters seem more authentic and featured the idea of inclusion in the American musical.
For good, old-fashioned musical comedy fun, go see Starlight’s production of “The King and I.” The show, though old, shines with new movement, choreography, new sets, more updated performances of the music, and a faster orchestration so that the music flows better and gives a more upbeat sound. The show is a dusty classic with a fresh coat of lacquer and some flair added. The changes make the show a family-favorite, still worthy of a family outing.
“The King and I” runs through June 17 at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre. Added big screen live video projection and the newest amenity, fans, make the amphitheater more comfortable for theater-goers. More information and ticket purchases can be found on the Starlight Theatre website.
Tags: “The King and I,” Starlight Theatre, Kansas City Theater, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Arts and Entertainment