Soulful performances elevate cartoon-based musical

Jake Levy (Dmitry) and Lila Coogan (Anya) in National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade
Dmitry (Jake Levy) tutors amnesiac Anya (Lila Coogan) in the national tour of Anastasia. (Photo by Evan Zimmerman, MurphyMade)

By Richard Ades

An orphan’s attempt to reclaim her royal identity leads to many glorious moments in Anastasia. True, there are other moments that are less than glorious, but the touring version of the Broadway musical makes up for them with fine performances and eye-catching scenery.

Opening on Broadway in 2017, Anastasia is based on the 1997 animated film, which itself was based on the popular legend that one young member of the Russian royal family—Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna—escaped being executed during the 1917 revolution.

The stage show keeps the film’s half-dozen Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty songs and adds several more. With a book by playwright Terrence McNally, it also replaces the flick’s supernatural villain, Rasputin, with Gleb, a Bolshevik army officer assigned to make sure the missing Anastasia never reappears.

Otherwise, the story remains the same: The grown-up orphan, now known as Anya and suffering from amnesia, is taken under the wings of two rapscallions determined to pawn her off as the real Anastasia in order to collect a reward from her aging “nana” in Paris. What they don’t know, of course, is that she actually is the real Anastasia.

The spark that brings this fanciful story to life is provided by its leads, who find relatable depth under the direction of Darko Tresnjak.

Lila Coogan is an endearing combination of stoicism, desperation and pluck as Anya, while Jake Levy is calculating yet decent as Dmitry, whose tutelage of the street sweeper eventually awakens feelings he tries to ignore. Both actors also sing beautifully, making the most of catchy tunes like “Journey to the Past” (Anya’s Act 1 closer) and even songs that are far less memorable.

Rounding out the top three leads, Edward Staudenmayer is engagingly outgoing as Vlad, who once masqueraded as royalty and now is Dmitry’s partner in the scheme to defraud a royal. Speaking of whom, Joy Franz brings dignity, warmth and a sweetly wavering voice to the role of the Dowager Empress, who is desperate to learn whether the rumors of her granddaughter’s survival are true.

The only prominent character who never quite gels is army officer Gleb, but it’s not entirely actor Jason Michael Evans’s fault. The Bolshevik is given the Javert-like task of chasing after Anya and even killing her if she turns out to be the real Anastasia, but he’s also saddled with so many mixed motivations that it’s hard to see him as a bona fide threat.

5 - Lila Coogan (Anya) in the National Tour of ANASTASIA. Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade.
Anya (Lila Coogan) celebrates her arrival in the City of Light. (Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade)

Some of the musical’s most visually impressive moments benefit from Donald Holder’s lighting design, Alexander Dodge’s scenic design and Aaron Rhyne’s projection design. (The latter won the original production’s only major awards.) Together, they create beautiful stage pictures depicting everything from a royal ball to a cross-country train trip.

Some of the less impressive elements may remind viewers of earlier works that were more effective. Besides the Javert-lite Gleb, there’s the Act 1 hymn to Russia, “Stay, I Pray You,” which calls up powerful moments from Fiddler on the Roof and Miss Saigon. Then there’s the comedy number “The Countess and the Common Man,” in which Vlad and former fling Lily (Alison Ewing) rekindle their romance with moves so reminiscent of old Carol Burnett-Harvey Korman skits that the show probably should pay royalties. (Full disclosure: Tuesday’s opening night audience ate it up.)

Being based on a less-than-great animated film, it’s not really surprising that Anastasia is a less-than-great musical. What is surprising is how often its cast and technical wizards turn it into a mesmerizing theatrical experience.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Anastasia through Feb. 2 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31.50-$124+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Iconic musical’s power emerges despite shadowy challenges

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The cast of Les Miserables asks for “One Day More.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

It’s when the latest incarnation of Les Misérables nears the halfway point that it begins hitting its stride. It’s then that we’re introduced to a group of young revolutionaries whose faith in their cause adds new layers of tragedy and nobility to the tale. The production builds from there to a climax that is just as glorious and moving as it was meant to be.

In the early scenes, however, this telling of fugitive Jean Valjean’s struggles has quirks that limit its effectiveness. Based on a 2014 Broadway revival and directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, the touring production incorporates scenery based on paintings by the tale’s original author, Victor Hugo. But it also employs a lighting design (by Paule Constable) so dark that it’s hard enough to see the actors, let alone the scenery behind them.

This is not so much a problem for those of us who’ve seen the musical multiple times, but it might discourage first-time viewers. Particularly during the fast-paced first act, they could well struggle to keep up as the story races from one dramatic development to the next.

For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Les Miz takes place in 19th-century France and centers on Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years simply because he stole a loaf of bread. Released on parole as the show opens, he struggles against his own bitterness—as well as the suspicion that greets a former convict—until a clergyman’s generosity allows him to reinvent himself. He then pledges himself to a life of helping others, but he’s forever dogged by a police official named Javert who’s determined to bring him to justice for breaking parole.

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Nick Cartell (right) as Jean Valjean and Josh Davis as his nemesis, Javert

Drenched in pathos and death, the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg blockbuster is admittedly melodramatic, but it succeeds on the strength of the achingly beautiful songs penned by composer Schonberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. That is, it succeeds when the cast does the songs justice.

What bothers me more than the current production’s dark lighting is that male leads Nick Cartell (Jean Valjean) and Josh Davis (Javert) sometimes make the melodies subservient to the drama—that is, they shout rather than sing the words. It’s an ill-advised technique that means we get only approximations of some of the most gorgeous songs in the musical-theater canon.

Fortunately, both actors have strong moments when they skip the shouting. Cartell displays his fine voice on the falsetto showcase “Bring Him Home” and makes Valjean an increasingly sympathetic figure as the show progresses. As for Davis, he has a limited voice that keeps him from being one of the all-time great Javerts, but he turns the Act I solo “Stars” into a near-showstopper on the force of will alone.

There are parts of the musical that are guaranteed some degree of success no matter how well they’re staged: the plight of single mom Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), say, or the comic antics of those conniving innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and Jimmy Smagula). It’s when the plot hops several years into the future and introduces new characters such as the aforementioned student revolutionaries that Les Miz sometimes struggles to regain its footing.

Luckily, that’s exactly when the touring production comes into its own.

From this point, the scenery of Matt Kinley begins emerging from the shadows: a silhouetted barricade, a sewer system that appears to arise magically from the stage. The former is the setting for a legitimately horrific battle, complete with the sounds of musket fire and whistling bullets, as the young rebels take a stand against repression.

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Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker) entreats his fellow malcontents to rebel against the government.

The characters introduced at this time are all brought vividly to life by accomplished actors: Brett Stoelker (filling in for Matt Shingledecker on opening night) as rebel leader Enjolras; Phoenix Best as the Thenardiers’ lovestruck daughter, Eponine; Robbie Crandell and Jasper Davenport alternating in the role of plucky street urchin Gavroche. Among the strongest are Jillian Butler as Valjean’s orphaned ward, Cosette; and Joshua Grosso as Marius, the rebel who falls for her. Their sweet voices and sincere delivery make us believe in love at first sight.

Hope in the power of love despite overwhelming adversity: That’s the final message of Les Misérables, and it still comes through as clearly as ever.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Les Misérables Nov. 19-24 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $79-$150+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Musicalized high school comedy deserves a passing grade

Mean Girls
Cady (Danielle Wade, left) gets to know Regina (Mariah Rose Faith, second from right) and her fellow “Plastics” in the first national tour of Mean Girls. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Tina Fey’s satirical wit comes across in everything she does, whether it’s Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock or the clever 2004 flick she wrote and co-starred in, Mean Girls. It also comes across in the musical version of the flick, now holding forth at the Ohio Theatre.

It comes across eventually, that is. The stage show is encumbered by several songs and dances that seem to be copied from the Broadway playbook, especially in the early scenes. But by the time the darkly comic plot kicks into gear, Fey’s distinctive voice is clearly heard.

Mean Girls is the story of Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), an American teen who was born and raised in Kenya but must move to the U.S. when her mother’s job is relocated. Since Cady has been homeschooled all her life, she feels doubly out of place when she stumbles into her first day at a Chicago high school.

Luckily for her, outcasts Damien and Janis (Eric Huffman and Mary Kate Morrissey) take it on themselves to lead her through the school’s minefield of a social scene. They describe each clique in detail, but they save their sternest caution for the “Plastics,” a trio of divas led by Regina (Mariah Rose Faith), an alpha female whose beauty and viciousness make her a figure of both envy and fear.

Despite their warnings, Cady lets herself be courted by the haughty group, which also includes the needy Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) and the hilariously dense Karen (Jonalyn Saxer). She soon learns the hard way that Regina is just as evil as she’s been told. She also learns, too late, that the Plastics’ shallow, self-centered lifestyle is dangerously addictive.

What makes Cady such a perfect guide into Fey’s version of high school purgatory is that she’s a tabula rasa. Raised in a land of beast-filled savannahs and star-filled skies, she knows nothing of a society where friends and social media “likes” are touted as signs of popularity. She also knows nothing about boys or the lengths to which girls will go to capture their attention, including downplaying their own intelligence. Most of all, she knows nothing of the cutthroat competition girls sometimes wage with each other out of insecurity and jealousy.

All of this comes across in the musical just as it did on the big screen, though not quite as succinctly. Jeff Richmond’s music, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography sometimes create numbers that seem to be straight out of Broadway Musical 101. The most self-conscious is “Stop,” the tap number that opens Act 2. Though entertainingly performed by Huffman’s Damien and a group of backup dancers, it seems too old-hat to belong in a modern high school.

More up to date, even though it does little to advance the plot, is the hip-hop-inspired “Whose House Is This?” And more creative is the Act 1 number “Where Do You Belong?”—which is fun despite “choreography” that largely consists of pushing tables and chairs around a lunchroom.

Best of all are the numbers that encapsulate the message of Fey’s cautionary tale. Among them are Janis and Cady’s “Apex Predator,” with its James Bond-like blares, and the uplifting finale, “I See Stars.”

Mean Girls has arrived in Columbus remarkably fast: It opened on Broadway only a year and a half ago and began its first national tour just last month. Despite the speed, the show at the Ohio is technologically polished. Director Nicholaw, scenic designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and others have joined forces to create a production that changes times and locales both colorfully and instantaneously.

More importantly, the cast is nearly perfect from both an acting and singing standpoint. Huffman is an early standout as Damian, despite playing a character that is little more than a gay stereotype. Among those making an impression in smaller roles are Adante Carter as Cady’s math-class crush and Gaelen Gilliland as her supportive teacher.

As for the leads, Wade makes us believe the huge metamorphoses Cady undergoes in the course of the show, while Faith actually leaves us feeling sorry for Regina after her fortunes change.

Well, just a little. It’s still nice to see at least one “mean girl” get a taste of her own medicine.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Mean Girls through Oct. 27 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$139+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Teenage angst, loneliness at center of ingenious musical

Stephen Christopher Anthony as 'Evan Hansen' and the Company of the First North American Tour of Dear Evan Hanse. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Stephen Christopher Anderson (center) plays the title role in the first North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

The first thing you see when you arrive at the Ohio Theatre to see Dear Evan Hansen is a wall filled with scrolling images of social media. It’s a sign that the story takes place in an era—namely now—when young people do much of their communicating via the internet.

One might be tempted to speculate that this reliance on virtual communication is the reason the title character is so terrified of face-to-face interaction. That theory dissolves, however, as soon as Evan (Stephen Christopher Anthony) opens his mouth.

The high school senior clearly suffers from an awkwardness and lack of self-confidence that would be debilitating in any era. For example, he has a huge crush on a girl named Zoe Murphy (Maggie McKenna) but is afraid to even talk to her. So serious is Evan’s problem that his concerned mom, Heidi (Jane Pfitsch), has sent him to counseling and coaxes him to follow his therapist’s advice by writing a daily letter to himself in an attempt to get in touch with his feelings.

It’s one of those letters that not only gives the musical its name but drives the plot, as it falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently mistaken for a farewell note left behind by Zoe’s troubled brother, Connor (Marrick Smith). When Evan is assumed to be Connor’s best and only friend—after all, the letter is addressed to him—he initially goes along with the misunderstanding in an attempt to comfort Zoe and her parents. But he soon finds himself trapped in an elaborate fiction that perversely elevates his standing in a school that previously ignored him.

Since opening on Broadway in 2016, Dear Evan Hansen has won six Tonys (including Best Musical) and become an enduring hit. No doubt it owes much of its early success to Ben Platt’s acclaimed portrayal of Evan in the original cast, but its continued popularity reflects the universal appeal of Steven Levenson’s ingenious book and Benji Pasek and Justin Paul’s score and lyrics.

Evan’s plight can be understood by anyone who ever felt insecure and unpopular in high school (that is, pretty much all of us). And any parent who ever felt unequal to the task of parenting will relate to Heidi, as well as to Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Christiane Noll) and Larry (Aaron Lazar, but replaced by John Hemphill at Tuesday’s performance), as their son was a source of pain long before his premature departure.

Heidi and Cynthia are given a chance to express their worry in the show’s first musical number, “Anybody Have a Map?” It and the hopeful “You Will Be Found”—performed under a sparkling kaleidoscope of lighting and scenic images—serve as strong bookends to the engrossing first act.

I must admit that my interest waned slightly during the second act and that neither I nor my companion found it as emotionally compelling as those who could be heard sniffling around us. This may be partly due to some of the acting choices made under the direction of Michael Greif.

In particular, while Jared Goldsmith and Phoebe Koyabe properly emphasize the humorous side of their respective teenage characters, Jared and Alana, it would be nice if they threw in a little vulnerability to help us understand why Evan’s deception is so eagerly accepted by his classmates.

Such a change might help Anthony plumb even more depth from the lead role he took over this week. Meanwhile, the actor expertly navigates Evan’s fast-talking nervousness and largely conquers the tricky tunes and frequent forays into falsetto that Pasek and Paul have given him. His rendition of one of the show’s best-known numbers, “For Forever,” is a triumph. (Sam Primack takes over the role for the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Speaking of the music, my only real problem with the show itself is that many of the songs are less than memorable. Those mentioned above are tuneful and moving, but several others are devoid of recognizable melodies.

The saving grace is that none of the songs seems superfluous, as the lyrics always serve to carry the plot forward. And the plot is both timely and timeless enough to make Dear Evan Hansen a musical theater classic.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dear Evan Hansen through Sunday (Sept. 22) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes 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, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets (standard and verified resale) are $70 and up. Enter a drawing for the chance to win $25 tickets at luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Matchmaker seeks meal ticket in storied musical

Hello, Dolly!
Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)

By Richard Ades

When comes to falling in love, timing is everything. That holds equally true when the potential object of your affection is a Broadway show.

Case in point: Decades ago, I encountered at Les Miserables at just the wrong time, when a tired and creaky touring show brought the musical back to Columbus long after its first visit. (And I mean literally creaky: The “turntable” was noisy enough to be heard over the orchestra.) The result is that I didn’t fall in love with the revolutionary tale until an incredible local production revealed its full power.

On the other hand, I encountered Miss Saigon at just the right time, via an early touring show that remains the best of the three productions I’ve seen.

All this is my way of saying it might be too late for me to fall in love with Hello, Dolly! Amazingly, I had not seen the chestnut until it toured its way into Columbus this week. The upshot: I admired the familiar Jerry Herman tunes, the spirited Warren Carlyle choreography and the giddily colorful, Santo Loquasto-designed scenery and costumes. But those attributes didn’t make up for a nearly nonexistent plot that was undercut by over-the-top comedy and spectacle.

Surprisingly, the New York Times reviewer who caught the original Broadway production back in 1964 had some of the same objections. In the end, though, the critic was won over by Carol Channing’s portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker and Jill-of-all-trades who was tired of scraping by in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

Channing was an incandescent presence who could simultaneously project charisma and vulnerability. That combination probably helped to carry the audience along as Dolly hatched a desperate plan to court and marry Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy and miserly Yonkers storekeeper who neither loved her nor was loved by her. Her bravura performance buoyed the tale right through to its bittersweet conclusion.

Over the years, the role has been taken on by a variety of stars ranging from two who originally turned it down—Ethel Merman and Mary Martin—to the divine Miss Bette Midler. In the current touring show, the task falls to Broadway veteran Betty Buckley. Buckley has proved her theatrical chops playing iconic roles such as Cats’s Grizabella and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, but here she doesn’t seem to generate the necessary wattage. Though her sweetly aging voice carries the tunes well enough, we just don’t buy the power Dolly seems to hold over Lewis J. Stadlen’s grumpily reluctant Horace and everyone else in sight.

Hello, Dolly!

Directed by Jerry Zaks, the touring show accompanies Dolly’s efforts with the same combination of silly humor and glorious spectacle that won the original Broadway production a mixed Times review and a bevy of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The silly humor includes Morgan Kirner’s honking portrayal of Horace’s niece Ermengarde, whose desire to wed artist Ambrose (Colin LeMoine) becomes Dolly’s cause du jour and is subsequently forgotten for most of the play.

Also silly is a hide-and-seek sequence involving Horace’s thrill-seeking employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Nic Rouleau and Sean Burns), hatmaker Irene (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant, Minnie (Kristen Hahn). But the four ultimately make up for it with help from Hahn’s comic expertise, Rouleau’s vocal pipes and Burns’s agile footwork.

Down in the pit, Robert Billig conducts a large orchestra bolstered by a number of local musicians, allowing tunes such as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!” to be delivered with all the richness they require.

Though I failed to fall in love with Hello, Dolly!, I do appreciate the scenic and vocal attributes that reward those who are. And who knows? Maybe one day a particularly persuasive Dolly will come along and win me over.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Hello, Dolly! through May 12 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. Tickets are $39-$119+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Flash- and joke-filled ‘Aladdin’ sweeps romance under the carpet

Aladdin
A typically colorful scene from the touring production of Aladdin, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

Great songs, fine singing and dancing, nifty special effects, beautiful scenery: What else could you ask from a Broadway musical?

Well, other than a story you actually care about. Aladdin falls short in that respect, especially compared to other Disney musicals like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. But for most folks who caught the touring show Thursday at the Ohio Theatre, the production’s other attributes were more than enough.

Based on the 1992 animated film and boasting catchy Alan Menken tunes such as “Friend Like Me” and “Whole New World,” Aladdin arrived on Broadway in 2014. There it was nominated for five Tony Awards but won only for James Monroe Iglehart’s performance in the showiest role, the Genie.

In the touring production, much of the attention also is grabbed by the Genie portrayer, Michael James Scott, who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for laughter and applause. Equally committed, if less showy, performances are turned in by other cast members.

Clinton Greenspan leaps agilely and sings sweetly as poverty-stricken thief Aladdin, while Lissa DeGuzman gives Princess Jasmine a feisty, no-nonsense personality. (Is it just me, or does she remind you of SNL’s Melissa Villasenor?) As her father’s scheming adviser, Jafar, and his henchman, Iago, Jonathan Weir and Jay Paranada excel in comic villainy.

The cast plies its trade against a backdrop that is often eye-poppingly gorgeous thanks to Bob Crowley’s scenery and Natasha Katz’s lighting. Particularly spectacular is the gold- and jewel-encrusted cave where an important plot development takes place.

Speaking of the plot, it all stems from Jasmine’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a suitably royal suitor despite pressure from her aging father, the Sultan (Jerald Vincent). Jafar hopes to take advantage of her reluctance and the Sultan’s resulting lack of a successor by usurping the throne himself. But his plans go astray when he accidentally connects Aladdin with the Genie, who can grant the young thief anything he desires. And what he desires most is the beautiful Jasmine.

Though other Disney fairy tales have succeeded in keeping the youngest viewers enthralled while offering enough emotional depth to satisfy their parents and older siblings, Aladdin remains stubbornly shallow. We’re supposed to care whether Jasmine ends up with the title character, but we don’t, maybe because we’re given no reason to think love won’t win out. She’s such a strong-willed individual, and the Sultan such a doting father, that we don’t seriously believe she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want.

As if to make up for the tale’s emotional flatness, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw fills the production with colorful song-and-dance numbers marked by acrobatic moves with a vaguely Arabic flavor. On top of that, he and his cast tell the story in a relentlessly jokey manner that combines comic stereotypes with winking nods to popular culture and even to other Disney musicals. The approach reaches its zenith when the Genie and multiple dancers perform “Friend Like Me,” a huge Act 1 production number that, following a recent musical trend, is actually a parody of classic Broadway production numbers.

Needless to say, all the jokes, cultural references and parodies make it even harder to take Aladdin and Jasmine’s tale seriously. The only time the show allows us to care about their incipient romance is during the Act 2 number “A Whole New World,” which sends the pair on a breathtaking magic-carpet ride among the stars. It’s a heartfelt, if short-lived, moment.

Say this for the touring show: It spares no effort or expense in its attempt to impress and entertain. If you can get past its emotional stinginess, you’ll likely feel it succeeds.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Aladdin through Nov. 4 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34 to $99-plus. Contacts: 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com or capa.com.

Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

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.