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As touring ‘King and I’ splashes across stage, keynote of cross-cultural rapport rings afresh

Submitted by on Jun 25, 2017 – 4:38 pm

The King (Jose Llana) and Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) whirl about the stage in "Shall We Dance?"

Review: “The King and I” by Rodgers & Hammerstein. Presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre through July 9. ★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

“The King and I” holds up a revealing mirror to our better selves. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, now at the Oriental Theatre in an enchanting tour production run, is enormously popular for its wealth of wonderful songs and magnificent visual possibilities. But its real importance lies in its message of cultural transcendence, and we as Americans have never had greater need of that message.

Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) tells the children they are precisely her cup of tea. We cheer for the spiritual rapprochement of a man (the King of Siam) and a woman (a British school teacher) who each need in the most profound way what the other has to offer. He wants his many children (by many wives) to be educated in Western ways so that they might cope in a rapidly changing world. She – the widowed Anna Leonowens – needs a job to provide for her adolescent son.

They begin as mutual aliens, from different worlds, opposite sides of the sea. They are as different as people can be. Ah, look at that: a paraphrase from another Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, “South Pacific,” which had its premiere just two years before “The King and I,” in 1949. But whereas “South Pacific” is a cross-cultural love story, twice over, “The King and I” is not, and perhaps could not be – certainly not in 1951.

In that respect, “The King and I” invokes the doomed romance between the Polynesian girl and the handsome lieutenant in “South Pacific.” No way was that going to fly back in the day. The lieutenant explains why in that show’s defining song: “You have to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade – you have to be carefully taught.” Real love and implied marriage is OK for the rugged middle-aged French fugitive de Becque, who killed a man years ago back in la belle France, and the pretty girl from Arkansas (about the right age to be his daughter). They’re both Caucasians.

The King of Siam (Jose Llana) is a devoted student of Western history and culture. I only appear to digress. That’s exactly where we are with Anna and the King of Siam. They are not lovers, nor can they be. But they are very important to each other; they grow in each other’s sunlight: like partners in a marriage. And the mutual nourishing is plain to everyone in a theater to see. Is it therefore a tragedy that the King dies before…before what? No, he dies having danced with Anna, having held her in his arms, having learned from her, having taught her much in turn. His son succeeds him on the throne, perpetuating the father’s best qualities and noblest aspirations. And Anna will remain in Siam to teach the royal children and honor the King’s memory.

“The King and I” is a cleverly spun narrative tapestry, illuminated in verse and music and given compelling life in this vivacious, radiant and wry Broadway production directed by Bartlett Sher. Laura Michelle Kelly’s elegant Anna, a woman on the threshold of middle age, and Jose Llana’s unusually youthful King make for an odd albeit wholly believable “couple.” One gets a clear sense of Llana’s serious, perceptive King whom necessity has matured beyond his years. For that matter, his son – the likewise sober and appealingly vulnerable Anthony Chan – is headed for just such a fast-track maturation himself.

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" is re-imagined through dance at the Siamese court.Kelly and Llana are quite lovely together. Their big duet “Shall We Dance?” brings touching consummation to a marathon test of wills tempered by a genuine desire on the part of Anna and the King alike to make this alliance work, if only for the good of those (many) adorable kids. In Kelly, the show also boasts a terrific singer who makes treasurable moments of “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Good voices and credible portrayals extend as well to Joan Almedilla as the head wife Lady Thiang (who stopped the show with her paean to the King, “Something Wonderful”) and Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao as the forbidden lovers whose fate really does lend the tale a wash of tragedy. Not to be overlooked is Brian Rivera as the King’s imposing but humane viceroy.

The show’s imaginative choreography and colorful costumes and sets achieve an evocative peak in the symbolic little play within the play, the marvelously stylized account of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” This graphic vignette is emblematic of a production that captures not only the exoticism of “The King and I” but also its message of one world, hopeful and funny and, in its appeal to human commonality, rhymed.

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