The all-Equity touring production of Lincoln Center’s impressive, Tony Award-winning revival of “The King and I” sailed into the Saenger theatre with a majestic rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s opulent musical.
Adapting New York shows for national tours ultimately demands adjustments. “The King and I” that originated at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with its thrust stage now must fit large proscenium theaters such as the Saenger with seating capacities nearly twice its size.
Director Bartlett Sher has done an admirable job in minimizing compromises. The panoramic aspects of his production dazzle, though some of the more intimate moments are diminished due to distance.
The book is based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, teacher of Siamese King Mongkut’s many children in the early 1860s.
Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly), a Welsh army widow, arrives in Bangkok with her young son, Louis, charged to “bring what is good in Western culture” to the seemingly barbaric East in hopes of fending off a post-World War II return to European colonization.
An intriguing relationship, by turns comic and combative, develops between the autocratic King (Jose Llana), who has an ardent interest in President Lincoln, and the strong-willed teacher, whose ultimate understanding of this proud, mercurial king sadly comes too late.
A lot has changed both theatrically and thematically since this iconic show debuted on Broadway nearly seven decades ago.
The role of the King, made famous on stage by Yul Brynner and in the 1946 movie “Anna and the King of Siam” by Rex Harrison, of late is more appropriately cast by such actors as Lou Diamond Phillips and Ken Watanabe.
Still potent are the play’s keen observations on the many forms of love, as well as its astute analysis of aspects of leadership.
Arguments that the play has racist overtones have merit, as they do in “Oklahoma” and “South Pacific.” Nevertheless Rodgers and Hammerstein prove themselves as far ahead of their time when it came to endorsing tolerance.
The East-West cultural clash at the center of the plot now seems more a guise concealing the ultimate conflict and resolution between a proto-feminist woman and a man who is unenlightened, but capable of evolving — a theme the legendary Broadway duo would return to in “The Sound of Music.”
In this era of pop-voiced musicals, it is delightful to hear operatically trained voices sing the rousing happy songs, lush ballades, and triumphant melodies of this beloved score.
The dancing is astounding, as Christopher Gattelli, working with Jerome Robbin’s landmark choreography, adroitly utilizes the distinct attributes of classic Thai movement.
Notable is the elaborate narrated ballet of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the swirling, unbeatably climatic “Shall We Dance” when eroticism finally enters the King and Anna’s unconventional relationship.
British actress Kelly, a superlative Broadway performer, with her luxuriant soprano voice, makes a smart, irresistibly appealing Anna. Her delivery of “Hello, Young Lovers” is unforgettable, and familiar ditties such as “Getting to Know You” and “Whistle a Happy Tune” are endearingly fresh, bright and breezy.
Llana, who played the King on Broadway, gives a masterful portrayal of the rascally charismatic, dangerous and potentially great leader. He humorously compels with “A Puzzlement,” as he contemplates the byzantine realities of governance.
Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), the King’s first wife who worships and steadfastly guards him, delivers “Something Wonderful” with great poise and striking poignancy.
As the ill-fated lovers Tuptim, a slave girl and gift from the King of Burma, and her secret paramour Lun Tha, Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao both excel in their exquisite duets “We Kiss in the Shadows” and “I have Dreamed.”
At nearly three hours in length, the performance might prove a bit of an endurance test for those accustomed to two-hour entertainment.
Sumptuous sets richly textured in reds and golds and gorgeous, silken costumes create an elegant atmosphere of ancient Siamese royalty.
Some might find this show an old-fashioned chestnut from golden-age musicals. Others will view Sher’s interpretation genuinely revelatory. Either way this “King” is worth your attendance.