THE KING AND I enchants at Fox
– By Cate Marquis –
THE KING AND I is a royal treat, a holiday season gift to musical lovers from the Fabulous Fox Theater, now playing until Dec. 10. There is something extra special about seeing this lovely Lincoln Center revival, which won four Tonys, of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at the Fox. The Fox theater’s fantastical decor has been called “Siamese Byzantine,” making it the perfect setting for a tale that takes place in 1860s Siam (now Thailand), mostly in the royal palace.
Visually dazzling, with big colorful sets and lavish costumes, this production of THE KING AND I delivers all the gorgeous trimmings fans of the venerable musical might have on their wish-list. All the musical’s beloved Broadway hit tunes are there, such as “Shall We Dance” and “Getting To Know You,” and performed by a talented cast amid the exotic glitter. However, fans should note that this new version is a bit different from the familiar one seen at the Muny or in the 1956 movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. The Lincoln Center revival’s story is somewhat updated, and some scenes are moved, compressed or combined with others. However, one this productions highlight is among those changes, a delightful expanded version of Tuptim’s little play reinterpreting Uncle Tom’s Cabin through a Southeast Asian lens.
Barlett Sher directs the show, with choreography by Jerome Robbins and Christopher Gattelli. The musical opens with English widow Anna Leonowen (Laura Michelle Kelly) arriving in the far-off kingdom of Siam. She has been hired by the King (Jose Llana) to teach the royal children but as Anna and her young son Louis (Rhyees Stump) arrive by boat, kindly Capt. Orton (Patrick Boll), who has befriended them, offers to take them back home if she has changed her mind. Undaunted, Anna is determined to stick by her agreement, even when she is greeted by the King’s Kralalhome (Brian Rivera), the country’s version of a prime minister, who informs her she will live at the palace, contrary to her agreement with the King. It sets up a battle of wills, as the strong-willed Anna finds herself both at odds with and liking the intellectually-curious but equally stubborn King.
Culture clash, and the mix of attraction and conflict between Anna and the King, drive the story, which is set at the same time as the American Civil War. As many know, the musical was based on real historical events and people, which gives the story a little extra layer of interest and provides source material for some changes and adaptations. The diaries of Anna Leonowen, an English widow hired to teach the royal children of Siam’s King Mongkut, were the basis for first a novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” and later the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and an earlier non-musical 1946 movie starring Rex Harrison. The king in the story was the father of the Thai king credited with modernizing his nation, and keeping Thailand from ever becoming an European colony.
Despite being on the other side of the world, the King takes an interest in President Lincoln and the war he is fighting. This version also puts a little more focus on the King’s historically-based determination to avoids about falling under the control of an European colonial power, as so many of his neighbors in Southeast Asia have.
Jose Llana makes the role of the King his own, avoiding imitating Yul Brynner’s version as many have done. His big vocal number, “Puzzlement,” is charming, funny, and sung with bravura. Scenes between Llana and Kelly as Anna have an appealing push-pull, affection mixed with conflict. Kelly is sweet, and particularly so in her scenes with the children in the cast, one of the show’s sweeter treats. Llana bring plenty of fire and bluster when the king loses patience, but successfully captures his quirky charm with his familiar “et cetera, et cetera” tagline.
Joan Almedilla plays Lady Thiang, the king’s first wife and mother of the Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan), with touching warmth and the bittersweet tang of a queen who still loves her husband despite his neglect. Her solo, “Something Wonderful,” is a moving musical highlight.
This new version dials back a bit on the hint of romance between Anna and the King but there is still plenty of romance in the story of star-crossed lovers Tuptim (Q Lim) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). The romance between the beautiful young woman given as a gift from the king of Burma and the young man who accompanied her to the Siamese court, gets a little more room to bloom in this version. Lim is particularly good as Tuptim, with Panmeechao providing warm support.
The new version’s production number highlight is easily Tuptim’s version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” “Small House of Uncle Thomas” is expanded into a delightful mini play-within-a-play. This enhanced scene entertains with delightful staging, a sometimes comic cross-cultural mash-up of an American story told in Southeast Asian style and its sincere embrace of its anti-slavery message. The latter dovetails nicely with the focus on the King’s interest in President Lincoln’s plight, and this version retains the scene of the King writing to Lincoln, offering assistance during the Civil War in the form of elephants (which he really did).
The song and dance numbers are all beautiful, suitably well-staged and performed, although the standout by far is the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” mini-play, a completely charming showstopper.
THE KING AND I is a wonderful treat for all musical fans, in the particularly appropriate and gorgeous setting of the Fabulous Fox Theater.
© Cate Marquis