The production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic The King & I that won four Tony Awards, including Best Revival, in 2015 has made its way to Los Angeles just in time for the holidays. Now playing at the Pantages Theatre, this traditional, sweeping musical that is fun for the whole family will leave you whistling happy tunes for days afterwards.
The musical begins in 1862, when Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly), a smart, independent, widowed schoolteacher arrives in Bangkok, Siam with her young son for her new job tutoring the numerous children of the King (Jose Llana). At first, Anna is a bit horrified by how old-fashioned life is at the palace—the King practices polygamy, and his youngest wife, Tuptim (Manna Nichols) was even a “gift” from the King of Burma. The King, despite his very traditional beliefs, is looking to modernize life in Siam and change the western perception of him as a barbarian, which motivated his recruitment of Anna. At first, the two frequently clash—Anna is bitter she must live at the palace despite the King’s forgotten promise of a house of her own, and the King is frequently shocked by how easily Anna defies him. Over time, of course, they reach an understanding and even develop genuine affection towards each other.
This production, which originated on Broadway at Lincoln Center and is directed by Bartlett Sher, is beautiful, featuring gorgeous sets by Michael Yeargan and stunning costumes by Catherine Zuber. There is a certain appeal to these older, more traditional musicals—the performance begins with a beautiful overture, and the cast is very large, featuring many talented dancers as well as singers. The music is very recognizable and memorable, including such classics as “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” and “Shall We Dance.”
The two leads carried the show with great style and ability. You could not help but immediately start rooting for Kelly’s Anna, who comes across as a modern woman before her time, capable, intelligent, and caring all at once. She shines when going toe to toe with Llana, who had impeccable comedic timing and was able to make a character of very questionable morals and customs likable. Unfortunately, on opening night there was an audio problem with persistent feedback from his mic, which I have found to be a too-common issue at the Pantages.
The supporting females in the cast all had star-quality voices, including Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s “head wife” and a good friend to Anna. Nichols was also a standout as Tuptim, and the subplot featuring her struggles to escape Siam along with Lun Tha (Kevin Panmeechao), her secret lover, is the most heart-wrenching the musical has to offer. The many adorable, talented children in the ensemble stole the show, however—it is impossible not to smile throughout “The March of the Siamese Children” as they are all introduced to Anna and get their individual moments to shine.
The King & I first premiered on Broadway in 1951, and it is difficult to not find many elements of it outdated. I was struck, however, with how relevant certain themes still are, although it’s rather sad that’s the case. Specifically, Anna is very much a woman in a man’s world (one may even call her a nasty woman), struggling for equal treatment (we won’t even get started on equal pay) in a society where females are essentially treated as possessions. She has to teach the King about respect, and introduce him to European culture, which before her arrival was an extremely foreign (pardon the pun) concept. Anna and the King exist across a great metaphorical divide, and they have to find a way to meet in the middle. Perhaps it is too easy to apply the current political situation to everything these days as it is so in the forefront of our minds, but there are messages about inclusivity and learning to listen to those with different views in this 65-year-old musical that still demand attention.
The King & I runs at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through January 21st. Please check the performance schedule carefully, as the holiday weeks have been altered. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. After Los Angeles, the tour will move on to cities all across the country through the summer of 2017. For information on upcoming tour stops, click here.
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