With the coveted Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Revival to its name, The King and I is yet another show in the Minneapolis Orpheum’s 2016-2017 season that garnered high expectations before it even hit the stage. And, much like its predecessors, it does not disappoint.
Based off Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam (which was based off Anna Leonowens’ memoir), Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I is set in 1862, and begins with Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) a widowed Welsh schoolteacher, arriving in Siam with her son, having been hired to teach English to the King’s children. Her values and way of life immediately clash with those of the King (Jose Llana) and his subjects, and ultimately provide a learning experience for the adults as well as the children.
One of the most striking things about this production is the way it seems to transport you back in time. This isn't just due to the elegant Victorian-era costumes; Director Bartlett Sher made a bold choice to eschew the current trend of casting vocal powerhouses and emphasizing their musical talent while putting their actual acting performance on the backburner, and it pays off. Laura Michelle Kelly doesn't run through entire octaves in a matter of seconds, or belt out refrains at the top of her lungs that make your jaw hit the floor, but her voice is sweet and pleasant, and that lends itself to her wonderful delivery of her character. Much of the same can be said for Jose Llana, whose voice, while nice, is well outshone because he absolutely nails his role as the hilariously headstrong King. This practice of casting actors who sing rather than singers who act was far more commonplace in the days of old-school Broadway, and seeing this refreshing-yet-familiar revival of it is a pleasant surprise.
Another strength of The King and I is its visual elements. Michael Yeargan (Sets) and Donald Holder (Lighting) clearly understand they’re fortunate in having the beautiful Siam as a setting to play with for a while, and they don’t waste one second of it. They hit the ground running when they open the show, with Anna standing at the bow of a ship against a heady Bangkok sunset that looks like something out of an oil painting. From there, they spoil the audience with a litany of rooms and corridors in the palace, one of the most notable being the garden where Princess Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and her lover, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) meet in secret at night. While they lament the forbiddenness of their relationship, they’re drenched in a melancholy blue light as thin tendrils of pink fabric seem to drip from the rafters, swaying and mimicking the leaves of a willow tree.
Truth be told, it’s difficult to find flaws to critique in the show, apart from a bit of a rocky start--the overture started too early, and thus was somewhat drowned out by half the patrons still meandering to their seats, and the house lights were left on through the first scene, making immersion into the story difficult. But, after that, it reels you in with its wit and romanticism and doesn’t let go.
With its beautiful visuals and old-Broadway flavor, The King and I is a fresh take on a timeless classic.