It's a sign of where we are today as a nation when a happy little tune from a Broadway musical practically brings you to tears. On opening night of The King and I, the remarkable touring production now at Playhouse Square, the cast sings "Getting to Know You," a charming ditty about people from different countries becoming acquainted. But now, it seems freighted with sad overtones as our current president pushes many foreigners away, often at the point of a spear.
Oh, to go back to that lovely sentiment of the early 1950s — or, you know, about a month ago —when we actually looked forward to meeting and greeting those from different cultures. In any case, that world is available now, on the Connor Palace stage, and it's wonderful to experience again the lush Rogers and Hammerstein score that features such all-time favorites as "Hello, Young Lovers," "I Whistle a Happy Tune," and "Shall We Dance."
This is the classic Broadway musical about a 19th century King of Siam (now Thailand) and the British schoolmarm who teaches him a thing or two about accepting other peoples' cultures and traditions. And he does the same for her. While this production puts a different spin on that relationship, there is much gorgeousness afoot for the audience to drool over.
The show gets off to an awesome beginning as we see the teacher Anna and her young son arrive on a boat from England. As the wooden ship glides towards the audience, set against the crimson sky of Bangkok, one gets the sense that something special has arrived.
After that glorious opening, all the rest of the action takes place in the royal palace, against an unchanging backdrop of a large gray wall. If that was all you saw, it would be depressingly static; happily, there is a huge cast of performers, costumed sumptuously, who make the stage come alive.
The portrayal of Anna here is very similar to other stage versions and to the film, which starred Deborah Kerr (with Marni Nixon's voice). Anna is a way-before-her-time feminist who is ready to stand up for her rights and her beliefs, even before the King. And the fine singer Laura Michelle Kelly makes Anna quite believable, if not exactly riveting.
As always in this show, the focus is thrown onto the King — probably because the incomparable Yul Brynner played the role for about 200 years. (That's an alternate fact. Actually, he performed the role 4,625 times.) In any case, he made the King in his image and it's hard for many of us who grew up with Brynner in our minds to imagine the King any other way.
Yet here comes the young and adorable Jose Llana, playing the King not as a stoic and distant autocrat but as a man who, it seems, has had the power of kingship thrust upon him. It's a very interesting twist on the character, and it has its positive and negative aspects. On the plus side, Llana's King is much more accessible. Confronted by Anna, he often responds unguardedly, instead of adopting the towering judgmental disdain that Brynner perfected.
However, since Llana is more of a human-scale leader, the moment when he and Anna finally come together and share some subtly sexy terpsichore in "Shall We Dance," is a bit less of an epiphany. But overall, Llana and Kelly make for a respectably dynamic duo.
They are ably supported by Joan Almedilla, who sings the role of Lady Thiang with passion. And the secret love affair between Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) and the King's slave/wife Tuptin (Manna Nichols) feels particularly resonant when they sing "We Kiss in the Shadows," even though some of the phrases are vocally pushed a bit too hard.
Perhaps the most transporting part of the show is when "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" is performed as a Siamese ballet, with the Buddha rescuing poor Eliza from the clutches of Simon Legree. Christopher Gatelli's choreography and Catherine Zuber's costumes truly make this interlude a highlight of the show.
In short, The King and I has all the Broadway zazz you're looking for, while giving us another perspective on what's happening in our world today. Hard to ask for anything more.