Saturday, December 17, 2016

Review: Under the Spell of THE KING AND I

Jose Llana as the King of Siam. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Jose Llana made his Broadway debut as Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Nearly twenty years later he would succeed Ken Watanabe in the role of the King of Siam in another remount. Now, with the arrival of Lincoln Center’s luscious national tour of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, LA audiences have the opportunity to see him return to the role at the Hollywood Pantages through January 21st.

It is one that is so closely identified with Yul Brynner who originated it, and won two Tonys and an Academy Award for his performance, that one might question whether another actor could do it justice. Llana’s portrayal erases any misgivings. Though some of his expressions are more modern than you might expect to find in a mid-nineteenth century king, he takes control of the stage with sweeping efficiency and still softens to reveal the circumspect human being behind the formidable public persona. Strong and unyielding in one moment, unexpectedly charming and funny the next, he is the rock upon which this breathtaking musical stands.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna

Chipping away at that rock, and the outdated beliefs that characterize his reign, is a feisty schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, played by Laura Michelle Kelly. Kelly is luminous as the widow who brings her young son to Siam in order to make a living after her husband’s death. With a silky voice and endlessly elegant demeanor she elevates this already visually stunning production to “something wonderful.”

They are a match made in musical theatre heaven, these adversaries who initially interact like oil and water. But as understanding grows, they form an unlikely bond that bridges their differences and breeds respect and even affection. This bridging of worlds, and the awkward fits and starts that go with it, is masterfully crafted by director Bartlett Sher.

From the pomp and circumstance of the “March of the Siamese Children” to the politically charged ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” to the glorious moment when the King takes Anna in his arms in “Shall We Dance,” Sher casts a spell that will leave audiences breathless with anticipation. Though vast in scope, the production still feels intimate, and that is no puzzlement. Christopher Gattelli’s re-creation of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography is sensational. Plus, Kelly and Llana have undeniable chemistry making this undoubtedly one of the best productions of The King and I you’re likely to see.

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly

The score is sublime, replete with Rodger’s signature soaring melodies and Hammerstein’s unaffected, insightful lyrics. Wistful ballads like “Hello Young Lovers” and “I Have Dreamed” and more lighthearted tunes like “Getting to Know You” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” eventually lead to the show’s incredible pièce de résistance, “Shall We Dance.” In that singular moment, when the King takes Anna by the waist, the musical’s epic climax of dramatic tension and unbridled joy is fully realized. It is a perfect synergy of sound, movement, and emotion.

As Lady Thiang, Joan Almedilla’s heartfelt version of “Something Wonderful” is truly wonderful. In it, we come to understand her fierce devotion to the King and why she watches over him like a hawk. Soprano Manna Nichols is lovely as the rebellious Burmese slave girl, Tuptim and has beautiful color in her mid-register, though she tends to swallow her high notes.

The one musical characteristic I found distracting in the show was the amount of back phrasing and altered note values in the women’s solos. It doesn’t happen on every song but it was obvious enough that I wondered if it was a stylistic choice by the musical director to adjust pick-ups, break up phrases mid-thought to breathe, and not sing the music as written, or if the singers were having difficulty keeping up with the orchestra because they couldn’t hear. There were times they were just enough behind the beat that it was impossible not to notice. Regardless, the music is as beautiful as ever and will more than satisfy lovers of classic musical theatre.

Michael Yeargan employs a streamlined approach to his set design using a single striking focal point in each scene rather than filling the stage with excessive detail. A gorgeous Thai silk curtain billows across the stage to cover scene changes burnished by Donald Holder’s exquisite lighting while a massive golden Buddha looks down over the palace. In the garden, hundreds of hanging rope vines fill the overhead space like velvet drops and, in the harbor, a massive ship emerges from the fog to bring Anna and her son to this mysterious new land.

Each effect is rich and powerfully emotional, including the infinite expanse of the empty ballroom in which Anna and the King share their first dance. Catherine Zuber takes an endless array of rich textiles and turns them into some of the most beautiful costumes imaginable. Altogether, it is a work of art.

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery  

Rodgers and Hammerstein made major contributions to the evolution of musical theatre and The King and I is one of their finest achievements. They told stories that brought social and cultural issues to the forefront on stage and pioneered a Golden Age of musicals that gave us such other groundbreaking shows as Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and Carousel.
 Most importantly, they taught us about ourselves.

The King and I remains an irresistible jewel in the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog. Its themes are as timely as ever and Sher’s production beautifully embraces the heart of the piece. You wont be disappointed.  

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana

Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao

Michiko Takemasa as Little Eva

The cast of The King and I

Laura Michelle Kelly and the Royal Children

The ensemble of The King and I

December 13, 2016 – January 21, 2017

Hollywood Pantages Theatre
6233 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028

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