By Richard Ades
When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.
The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.
It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”
As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.
The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.
Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).
Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”
A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com. For information on future tour stops, visit thekinganditour.com.