Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Golden Age musical, The King and I, is notably difficult to produce professionally. It requires an exceptionally large cast, and most of the principals must perform in a “legit” singing style that borders on operatic quality. Quite a few cast members must dance well, as there is a lengthy “story” ballet tucked into the middle of Act 2. Even a larger-than-normal orchestra is required. Oh, yes, there are also lots of children in the cast.
I’m happy to report that the national touring company of The King and I, stopping at the Civic Theatre this week, meets the challenges very well.
Based on a Broadway revival that won Tony™ Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Costume Design of a Musical, as well as acting awards for leading actress Kelli O’Hara and featured actress Ruthie Ann Miles, the tour boasts a cast of 37 and the sumptuous beauty of Catherine Zuber’s costume designs lit elegantly by Donald Holder.
Director Bartlett Sher adapts his Lincoln Center staging for tour houses, and even though the tour is coming up on two years old, it is in great shape, with performances looking fresh and cast members delivering with disciplined energy.
Heading the tour is Jose Llana as the King of Siam. Mr. Llana had two stints in the role during the Broadway run, and he finds every opportunity to emphasize the part’s comic moments. He also pairs nicely with Elena Shaddow as Anna Leonowens, the British widow who takes a position as English teacher for the King’s many wives and children, a contingent headed up by Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang.
The story line emphasizes the culture clash between a woman who insists that the promises made to her be fulfilled and a King who is not used to being challenged but who is taken by his challenger. The repetitive clashes between the two allow for the glorious score to come to the fore with classic standards such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in the Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Shall We Dance.”
Ms. Shaddow’s creamy soprano carries many of the score’s best moments. Mr. Llana’s King is expected to “speak-sing,” but Mr. Llana’s baritone surprises with its richness. Ms. Almedilla’s lush mezzo brings power and feeling to “Something Wonderful.” Only the pair of young lovers (Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao) seem mismatched, with Mr. Panmeechao’s tenor lacking depth as compared to Ms. Lim’s soprano.
And that ballet in Act 2? It’s a puzzlement, as the script would say. Sadly, current audiences are mostly unfamiliar with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s incendiary novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book Anna uses to open the eyes of her students to their cultural oppression. But, the students convert the story into a sad attempt at cultural appropriation, and Christopher Gattelli’s recreation of Jerome Robbins’ original ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” seems at best a curiosity, rather than the sharp parody that was intended.
Even so, there is enough to delight the ear and eye to make this production of The King and I one to treasure.