When Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” — based on the novel, “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon – opened in 1951, nobody could have ever guessed that the musical would still be recognized for accolades 65 years later. Yet, in our epoch of globalism and interrelatedness, a story about a culture clash between two worlds, represented by two individuals, one as the modernist and the other a primitive, reveals a fascinating relativism. There is one exception to that, however — love, which, irrespective of personal differences, only needs respect to blossom.
The production, having overall won four Tony Awards — including Best Revival of a Musical in 2015 and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Kelli O’Hara) — is in the midst of its 2016-17 touring schedule, which runs through January 21st at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre and then beyond. The current musical is fabulously directed by Bartlett Sher, and like its predecessors, seeks to answer — on the strength of its performers — questions about power, customs, and relationships.
At the core of the narrative is a widow by the name of Anna Leonowens (played by Broadway star Laura Michelle Kelly), who temporarily moves to Siam (now modern-day Thailand) with her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) to teach the King of Siam’s myriad children, including elder son Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan), about the ways of the world and thus civilize them. Disagreements over status and gender relations, as well as one particular sticking point about a reneged promise by the King to provide Anna her own home, soon follow before the two protagonists develop a mutual fondness.
From the instant Laura Michelle Kelly appears on the top deck of a seemingly life-sized ship (one of the many incredible set pieces, along with an impossibly large golden Buddha and moving pillars), she embodies a sweet delicateness and moral rectitude of a Mary Poppins, which Kelly coincidently originated on Broadway. The only contrast is that Anna, who openly challenges a king, might be more audacious than Poppins.
Moreover, Kelly is delightfully endearing in the role, as both a teacher and as an equal to the King of Siam. In the case of the former, Kelly becomes the teacher every child wishes he or she had, offering unconditional love and support in an infectiously positive way (particularly when she sings “Getting to Know You”). That said, Kelly also infuses her character with chutzpah when necessary, notably during a scene in her bedroom when she sings indignantly about feeling slighted by the King (“Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”). Yet, as Anna, Kelly makes sure to give her persona a refreshing perspective that can see the good in everything and everyone.
Portraying the King of Siam, again, after successfully succeeding Ken Watanabe, is Jose Llana, who brings a relentless energy to the conflicted character. On one hand, the King is bound to traditional mores in spite of relational inequities; however, he is also a learned man who “may be in doubt of what he know” (e.g., when he purposefully sings “A Puzzlement”). Llana not only gets his character’s dilemma across with seeming ease, but does so with a humorous self-awareness.
As far as manipulating his facial expressions on command to funnily convey disgust, exasperation, or incredulity, there are very few who can pull off what Llana does and do so in a live setting with no retakes. Certainly, the best example of this are the instances where his character – in a power-affirming show of status — demands that Anna’s head always be lower than his, especially during one extended knee-slapping, teeter-tottering exhibition of this. The look of wide-eyed annoyance that Llana affects (Kelly deserves ample credit, too), while looking out to the audience for childlike-approval, is a joy to watch. From this we gather that the King of Siam isn’t all bad and, in fact, might be more contemporary for the time period than Anna is about certain things (i.e., when he asks why “civilized” women have to wear billowy dresses that make it seem like they have no legs at all).
Even more impressive is that Llana is able to counteract his character’s likability with the reminder of who the King of Siam might still be when anguished by the quandary of whether or not to punishingly whip Tuptim (Manna Nichols), a slave girl from Burma, who attempts to flee. The intensity that Llana musters is almost harrowing to watch because suddenly the naturalism offered in the scene makes the audience members question momentarily if what they’re watching is real – and that is a hallmark of elite acting.
Furthermore, a show as grand as “The King and I” doesn’t have the staying power it does without a stellar supporting cast to complement it. For example, Anthony Chan does a great job of portraying Prince Chulalongkorn with a naïve irascibility and disapproval in Act I, specifically when he has little tantrums in defiance of Anna’s growing influence over him. Soon, though, we see the boy become a man, and when Chan steps forth to conclude the show, we believe he is fit to be king.
In addition, Joan Almedilla has a calming effect about her as Lady Thiang that is very pleasant, with a wistful and lilting texture to her voice that suits her main song, “Something Wonderful,” beautifully. As the forbidden lovers, Tuptim and Lun Tha, Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao strike the right heart-rending chords during their duets of “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”– a result of their captivating on-stage chemistry. Other individuals whose work is very underrated include Brian Rivera as Kralahome, the King’s confidant, who admirably steadies his character’s intimidating presence with an understanding kindness; and Graham Montgomery, who plays Anna’s son, Louis, with a strong-willed brazenness that one would expect of a boy with a brave mother like his.
Last, but not least, are the dancers who shine resplendently because of their extraordinary talent and exquisitely made attire thanks to costumer Catherine Zuber. Proof positive of this is the famous ballet in Act II, entitled “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which artfully delineates an escape by runaway slave Eliza (Lamae Caparas) from the dastardly King Simon of Legree (Rommel Pierre O’Choa). The fact that the dance measures are done in an engrossingly interpretative fashion — chronicled in detail, culminating in King Simon being drowned, and Eliza being free from his thrall — is a testament to choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s ingenuity and execution of Jerome Robbins’ original conception.
Unquestionably, the current version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” deserves the highest possible recommendation for not only expounding on a classic musical, but continuing to surprise and delve into characters and their struggles — which are as applicable today as ever before. And it does so with class, patience, and a fastidiousness by its director, Bartlett Sher, who brings the best out of his performers.
For more information about Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, please visit