If Rodgers and Hammerstein had dreamed up a dream cast for their classic 19th-century musical The King and I, it would be the ensemble that appeared at the packed house in the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night.In Tuesday night’s performance, the voices were nothing less than magical and the chemistry between the several romantically linked couples in the show simply sparkled with energy and excitement. This, combined with wise staging at the hands of Director Bartlett Sher, cast a spell on the audience as people soaked up familiar songs such as I Whistle a Happy Tune and Shall We Dance? and became enchanted by the timeless tale of love.
The King and I — which first appeared on stage in the 1950s and was revived last two years ago on Broadway for a total of four Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical — is lighthearted and entertaining, even as it deals with issues of class, slavery, cultural differences, sexism and feminism. The story of a widowed English schoolteacher, Anna, who travels across the globe to teach the dozens of children fathered by the King of Siam, shows how love can transcend such differences and unite those with contrasting views.
The show portrays the evolution of several love stories, to the delight of its audience. There is the story of Anna, who must finally admit she has fallen in love with the King, and he with her; the story of Tuptim, one of the King’s concubines who pines for her true love from whom she has been separated; and the love story of Lady Thiang, the King’s number-one wife, and her obvious affection for her powerful husband.
The way that Rodgers and Hammerstein wove these different stories and serious plotlines together in a seamless fashion is theatrical genius. Sher, himself a Tony Award winner, opted to honor the classic nature of the story in this production and the richness of the music and not veer too radically away from the original. What he did do, however, was cast people who can literally take the audience’s breath away with their vocal power and range and the passion they infuse into their performances.
Of Jose Llana, who played the King on Broadway and is now touring with this Lincoln Center Theater production, Sher says, “He brings such joy and virility and strength to the King. He is one of Broadway’s great talents.”
Llana proves to be even more masterful than that, enlivening the King with a hysterical sense of humor and dry delivery that elicit peals of laughter from the audience. His deep voice resonates, whether he’s scolding one of his children or singing songs like A Puzzlement.
He plays opposite Heather Botts, whose Anna is such a treat to experience, especially when she sings. Botts’ rendition of Getting to Know You is exquisite, and her delivery of Shall I Tell You What I Think of You? is quite funny. Together, Botts and Llana exude love, which is a powerful base for the entire show.
Also notable in the show are the solid vocal performances of Q Lim as Tuptim, Kavin Panmeechao as her lover Lun Tha and Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang.
The pageantry of The King and I includes an elaborate play within a play in the second act, as the wives and children perform an adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for British visitors who are there to gauge whether the King is a barbarian. The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is fascinating and the dancers — most of whom are the children — are flawless. LaMae Caparas as Eliza is particularly delightful.
Nothing is less than outstanding — not one second — in this production of The King and I, which runs through November 12, 2017 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.