Chicago Theatre Review
The King and I – Broadway in Chicago
After a bitter cold winter and a soggy wet springtime, Chicago’s summer bursts forth like fireworks in this sumptuous, colorful new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved classic musical. Following high acclaim by audiences and critics alike, not to mention four Tony Awards, including 2015’s Best Revival of a Musical, the National Tour of Lincoln Center Theater’s breathtaking feast for the eyes and ears has finally reached the Windy City. Do not miss this one!
Throughout this bewitching musical classic, based upon Margaret Landon’s historically-based 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, love courses throughout almost every scene. Accompanied by her young son, Louis, Anna Leonowens, a young, English schoolteacher, bravely travels to the Orient in the early 1860’s to accept a governess position for the children of the Siamese King. Despite being recently widowed, Anna’s still in love with her departed husband. Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, loves her own husband, yet she understands that he isn’t perfect. The King is strong and proud, while still having many doubts and weaknesses, as well. Like monarchs of his time, the King is unwilling to listen to the advice and views of any woman, however that’s about to change. Princess Tuptim, the young Burmese girl, presented to the King as a gift, has sadly been torn away from her own lover, the young scholar, Lun Tha. In spite of their tempestuous relationship, an affection that can never be recognized or acted upon, Anna and the King gradually build a trusting partnership.
Grand scale visual and musical perfection weaves across the Oriental Theatre stage, thanks to Bartlett Sher’s wise and majestic direction. His staging, adapted from Lincoln Center’s magnificent thrust venue to proscenium, just for this tour, is still impressive, grandiose and elegant. Every moment of this 1951 masterpiece is heaped in spectacle, yet sometimes peppered with unexpected surprises and moments of comedy. This monarch and his English schoolteacher beautifully journey from courteous respect to genuine caring, with much humor to balance the pomp and ceremony.
Rodgers & Hammerstein understood that their shows’ popularity evolved from the love stories told through words and music. In this musical the main story isn’t like most traditional romantic tales. To give audiences what they expected, the composer and playwright invented a subplot, a forbidden love affair between two minor characters, Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha. This doomed relationship provided that element the theatergoers demanded. And, despite a continual rocky relationship between the King and Mrs. Anna, the manner in which Mr. Sher has staged and guided his two talented leading actors allows the audience to observe their care and deep respect developing, right through to the show’s heavyhearted finale.
Bartlett Sher also has the advantage of a handsome and terrifically multitalented cast. English musical theatre star Laura Michelle Kelly, who recently dazzled Broadway audiences in “Finding Neverland,” makes a beautiful, brave and very proper Anna. Ms. Kelly employs every subtle nuance, while caressing each song with her clear, expressive voice. She masterfully carries off this challenging role, a part originally created by the legendary Gertrude Lawrence. Navigating the stage in her giant hoop skirts with grace and sophistication, and peppered with spunk and determination, Ms. Kelly makes this iconic leading lady her very own.
She’s matched note for note, scene for scene by a bold, enterprising and youthful King, played with command by New York actor Jose Llana. With an impressive resume, including twice playing the lead in the original Lincoln Center revival, Mr. Llana makes his portrayal magnificent as this absolute monarch. His enthusiasm for scientific scholarship and acquired wisdom frequently collides with his ego, and the character learns how to be humble. Llana shows strength, maturity and a delicious sense of whimsy. Displaying a personality that’s continually at odds with itself, while coping with and being drawn to this frustrating, intelligent woman, this King is a supreme ruler. Llana’s monarch is a worthy, outspoken sparring partner for Ms. Kelly’s lovely, emotionally-controlled Anna. This dynamic team sublimely succeeds in bringing the heart and soul of this production to the Oriental stage.
The supporting cast abounds with gorgeous voices, graceful movement and commanding performances. Joan Almedilla is an elegantly beautiful, charitable, take-charge Lady Thiang. Her operatic voice makes her rendition of the touching, “Something Wonderful,” indeed, something wonderful. Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao are exquisitely heartbreaking in the roles of the forbidden Burmese lovers, Tuptim and Lun Tha. All three actors create honest, well-rounded characters and sing Richard Rodgers’ score as if born to play these roles. The young lovers’ peerless performances of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and the lush, “I Have Dreamed” are laced with an air of melancholy. Brian Rivera makes the Kralahome a fiercely stern, finely executed adversary in Anna’s life. Baylen Thomas does double duty, portraying a cautionary father figure, as an articulate Captain Orton, while his British dignitary, Sir Edward Ramsey, is dapper, refined and charming. Mr. Thomas also offers a challenge to the King’s affections for Anna.
The children are all angelic and affecting, particularly young Graham Montgomery, as Anna’s son Louis and, as a terrific Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, the talented young Marcus Shane, steps in for Anthony Chan, at the press opening. Both young actors effortlessly leave their mark, with Mr. Shane creating the perfect, younger version of his father, the King. In the play’s final, tear-filled moments, as the Prince inherits his new title, we hear his governess’ influence in his first proclamations that herald the beginnings of a new era in Siam.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreographic talents have been enjoyed everywhere, from Lincoln Center to the Broadway stage. Here he creates a montage of elegant movement for numbers like the warmly spirited “Getting to Know You,” the joyous “Shall We Dance” and, of course, the musical’s showpiece, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which is far more grandiose, eye-popping and balletic than most productions. Much credit also goes to the show’s ensemble of talented dancers, especially Lamae Caparas as Eliza, Rommel Pierre O’Choa as a terrifying Simon Legree, and Nobutaka Mochimaru as the charming Angel/George.
The simple visual beauty, opulence and splendor of King Mongkut’s Siamese palace falls to set designer Michael Yeargan, with his authentic, Asian-influenced mobile pillars, shimmering gossamer draperies and a grand, life-size ship that sails onto the stage carrying Anna and Louis to Siam. Donald Holder lights this production with magic and mood.
Catherine Zuber, who created the costumes two years ago for the Lincoln Center revival, has once again outdone herself. Her luxurious, shimmering wardrobe for the Siamese court flows with elegance. She’s provided spectacular antebellum fashions for Anna, ranging from heavy, multilayered hoop-skirted creations, gradually progressing to her traditional, silver satin ballgown for “Shall We Dance.” Beyond these, she’s designed the more delicate silks and satin brocades for her large cast of Siamese wives, children and citizens, including a number of breathtaking robes for the King. The icing on the cake are the period wigs and hair created by Tom Watson.
Everything about this beautiful production deserves a standing ovation. Gerald Steichen conducts his glorious, richly sounding pit orchestra offering meticulous musical direction and support for the voices of this talented cast.
At almost three hours in length, this production is a thoughtful, unhurried production, somewhat in the style of the 1951original, but with its own individual personality. Whether theatergoers are paying a return visit to this lovely, timeless tale of culture shock and romance or enjoying a first-time encounter with Anna and the King, Bartlett Sher’s mellifluous, visually stunning and handsomely executed production of an American classic is both affectionate and grand. A sweeping bow of gratitude to Broadway in Chicago for bringing another excellent, Tony Award-winning production to the Windy City.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 14-July 2 by Broadway in Chicago at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, all Ticketmaster locations, by calling the BIC Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com