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The King and I – A Royal Hit ~ The Kennedy Center

Jordan Wright
July 22, 2017 

The Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

The Cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Under the expert direction of Barlett Sher we allow ourselves to be transported to the magic and majesty of the Kingdom of Siam.  It’s 1862 and the King (as played by Jose Llana) is fearful of France taking over his kingdom as learns they have done in Cambodia.  To prove his British-ruled country is worldly wise, he employs Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) a charming British schoolteacher to educate his extended family.  Recently widowed and accompanied by her young son, Louis (Graham Montgomery), the story begins with Anna and Louis arriving into Bangkok harbor.  It’s a breathtaking opening scene featuring an enormous wooden ship against the background of a fiery sunset and a scene of Siamese villagers going about their daily tasks in silhouette – figures toting baskets hung on poles and sporting coolie hats.  The menacing King’s guards arrive to terrify the locals into submission.  Cue the kowtowing – an issue we will see addressed by Anna and Prince Chulalonghorn (Kavin Panmeechao) later in the story.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Anna is soon greeted by Kralahome (Brian Rivera) the king’s aide, an intimidating figure who tells her the King’s instructions demand they live in the palace rather than a separate house.  “The King doesn’t always remember what he promises,” the King smugly pronounces upon their meeting.  This is the plot device that sets Anna and the King at sixes and nines as Anna strives to get her footing in a household filled with the King’s many children and favorite wives, most especially Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) and the beautiful, star-crossed Tuptim (Manna Nichols).  But it’s Anna’s sense of propriety, anti-slavery stance and insistence on female equality that especially trips her up with the King.  “I believe women are just as important as men,” she asserts.  The most hilarious moments derive from their contretemps.

Meanwhile the King in his “puzzlement”, as he refers to his indecision, compares his predicaments with that of Western world leaders.  “What would Lincoln do? What would Queen Victoria do?” he asks Anna whose advice he begrudgingly seeks as their love for each other grows deeper.

Manna Nichols and Kavin Parmeechao. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Manna Nichols and Kavin Parmeechao. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

This outstanding musical provides a rich tapestry of emotional connection and unrequited love framed by sumptuous costumes ranging from Anna’s Victorian hoop-skirted silk dresses to lavishly encrusted golden chada hats and jewel-toned silks by designer Catherine Zuber.  Choreography that includes Thai dancing and intricate ballet, as well as Anna and the King’s waltz is by Christopher Gatelli and Greg Zane and faithfully based on Jerome Robbins’ original dance sequences.  The sets by Michael Yeargan, plus a mega-sized golden Buddha, are designed to blow your socks off.  And they do.  One of the most spectacular scenes is Tuptim’s play set to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s historic story “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, here called “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”.  It is a rich tale performed in traditional Thai ballet and elaborate costume and written by the lovelorn maiden to bring awareness to the country’s treatment of women as slaves.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana. Photo credit Matthew Murphy

There are so many powerful voices and goose-bump solos it’s hard to know who to single out.  Naturally Kelly as Anna, Almedilla as Lady Thiang, Nichols as Tuptim, and Llana as the King of Siam, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera as the King is fond of saying.  Of course, you’ll revel in the sweeping score with classic songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, “Getting to Know You”, “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance” as the most memorable.  And the royal children are so endearing, we awaited their entrances at every turn.

Brought here by the wildly successful national touring company, Ambassador Theatre Group, this production is top drawer.  My plus one and I reveled in memories of the first Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway blockbuster starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and weren’t disappointed by this faithful reprise for a New York minute.

Highly recommended for the whole family.

Through August 20th in the Opera House at The Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW, Washington, DC.  For tickets and information call 202 467-4600 or visit www.Kennedy-Center.org.

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