The King and I, playing at the Orpheum February 28th - March 5th, takes you to 1862 Bangkok where King Mongkut of Siam is hiring English teacher Anna Leonowens to instruct his many children and wives. Musical theatre has adapted to fit the times, but this show, originally opening on Broadway in 1951, has been through decades. I entered the theater expecting a bit of a dull show, but was pleasantly surprised by its charm. The music wasn’t anything extraordinary, but the set and costume design more than made up for it.
The vocal energy was captivating enough to keep even the weakest parts intriguing. Capturing tender moments with the kids, or intense fits of rage, the cast kept a strong hold on telling an authentic story through the dialogue. However, this was not the case for the singing. Most of the songs were slower, classic musical theatre pieces producing a vibrato that gave an opera feel. For a disappointingly large section of the cast I had trouble comprehending their lyrics. This was especially so for Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) and Tuptim (Manna Nichols). Every time they sang, their acting was realistic, but I had trouble receiving the full message because I couldn’t understand what they were saying.
While the singing may have been a bit uneventful, the costumes and set were stunning. It was like stepping into the King’s palace and witnessing the clash of two cultures through etiquette and clothing. I had the highest expectations for Anna’s beautiful, full skirted dresses and it surpassed anything I could have imagined. Her closet seemed endless featuring pieces in forest green, white with blue stripes, deep magenta, and my favorite, fine lavender. The iconic dance between the King and Anna, when they share feelings for the first time, is better than any Disney Princess movie. They dance around the palace with her dress swirling and they float through the room as though they could dance on forever, stealing audience’s breath. Kudos to Laura Michelle Kelly, playing Anna Leonowens, for her extensive practice becoming accustomed to the weight and diameter of the skirt.
Part of this production’s charm was Michael Yeargan’s set design. One of the most shocking ideas onstage was right at the beginning. Before you can even comprehend the originality of having a sheer curtain lit with an assortment of colors, the bow of a life-sized boat enters the stage (only later to split into three pieces, with one feathering a staircase). I found myself so invested in the show that as the lights came up for intermission, I was saddened I had to wait for Act II.
Though this show is dated, many of the messages are timeless. It explores gender norms, generational traditions, and the experience of love. I was inspired by the main female role, schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, bold and determined as she stands her ground even in moments of knee-buckling fear. Though the story focuses on the relationship between the King and the schoolteacher, the show is enhanced by interconnected stories. Initially, these stories do not appear to be much, but as the show progresses, tension builds and your heart pounds as you wish the best for everyone.
The King and I, though classic, brings freshness through its transfixing set and costume design. Although the music was commonplace, the line delivery kept the show moving. I recommend getting to know this show and allowing yourself to be captivated by the pageantry and majesty of this classic story.