By Morgan Politzer
Roger and Hammerstein once again took over The Kennedy Center as The King and I danced into Washington D.C., hot on the heels of The Sound of Music. Full of the classic charm that made the duo famous, The King and I revival, directed by Bartlett Sher, was every bit as lovable as the versions that came before it. Set in Siam (modern day Thailand) in the 1860s, the musical is based on Margaret Landon’s 1940s novel, Anna and the King of Siam.
When the curtain rose, the looming Chow Phya ship glided onto the stage, bringing English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) to the shore of Bangkok. Preparing herself for life in a new country, Anna and her son “Whistle a Happy Tune” as they enter a country caught between old traditions and the desire to enter the modern, scientific era. Anna is brought to the country by the King (Jose Llana), who wants his many wives and children to become educated in the changing world.
The late Yul Brynner set the precedence for the lovable king after he held onto the role for nearly 30 years. Llana not only accepted the challenge of making the character his own, but rose to the occasion. His rich voice and subtle humor created a relatable, modern character as he tries to prove Siam can be a leader of the modern world.
Full of classic numbers like “Getting to Know You,” “Hello Young Lovers” and “Shall We Dance,” the cast had the room singing along in their seats. But unlike most musicals, the unconventional lack of “musical theatre dancing” was expected, given the nature and setting of the show. Rather than using song to move the plot along like most musicals, the numbers in The King and I are a release of emotion. Each character had to maintain an image of strength and confidence when around other inhabitants of the palace. Their emotional ballads served as their catharsis, giving them a way to express themselves without fear of consequences.
With an emphasis on the clash of ideals between the two main characters, the production has an air of grandeur. Part of this comes from set designer Michael Yeargan. Elegant columns come down to create the walls of the palace, and the throne room is dominated by a towering golden Buddha. Effortless transitions shift the scenes back and forth from the palace garden as Tuptim (Manna Nicholas) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) try to suppress their forbidden love under a slender willow tree.
Perhaps the most iconic moment in the show is when Anna steps out in her dreamy purple dress. Thanks to Tony Award-winning costume designer Catherine Zuber, Anna’s full hoop skirt and tasteful off-the-shoulder sleeves mesmerized the room as she taught the King how to dance the polka.
While The King and I is set in the 1860s, it highlights key issues the world faces today. Each fiercely independent, Anna and the King initially fail to see eye to eye. The strong-willed Anna quickly proves she will not tolerate being forced to behave as a submissive, obedient woman and is an even match for the quick-witted King. Gradually, they must learn to accept each other’s customs and culture, a lesson we are still trying to understand today.
When compared to other musicals, especially classics, there is nothing intense about The King and I. There is no pivotal, plot-altering moment of realization or edge-of-your-seat breathlessness. But it is a classic in its own right. Full of talent and energy, it is lovable and familiar, making it a classic.
The King and I will run at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing arts through August 20, 2017.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy.
Morgan Politzer is a freshman journalism major and can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.