By Erika Brown Thomas
Rogers and Hammerstein’s beloved musical, The King and I, takes the stage at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago with spectacular costumes, sumptuous harmonies and a story for the ages of adventure, a love of learning and respect. (A full plot synopsis and illustrious production history may be read in detail here.)
Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna) is perfection in this role. With a voice as beautiful and warm as summertime in Chicago and emotional depths that squeeze the heart, Kelly takes this character into uncharted territory. The actress’ Anna is as sensitive as she is loving. She displays more frustration and disappointment than anger as she brilliantly navigates Anna through the East/West culture clash and the sexism and classicism of the late 19th century. Her nuanced portrayal pays incredible homage to the real woman who inspired this story.
The King, portrayed by Jose Llana, delights audiences with his humanity, humor and wit. Llana sings this role with greater vocality than many of his predecessors, and it’s refreshing. He and Kelly demonstrate the clear-cut chemistry between Anna and the King and the undeniable difficulties their relationship must confront time and again. At times he is heart wrenching, at others he is endearing and at still others he is both; but at all times Llana maintains the dignity and respect suited for the King of Siam.
The two star-crossed lovers, Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) eschew their love as long as they can until finally succumbing to each other’s embrace in “I Have Dreamed.” Their portrayal of this tragic couple is full of despair and full acknowledgement that they will never be together. There is not much that allows the audience anticipation or hope that “maybe this time they will get away.”
Joan Almedilla plays Lady Thiang, head wife to the King, exquisitely. Her rendition of “Something Wonderful,” a song explaining the intricacies of a life inside the royal palace as a woman, in itself lives up to the title. She emotes and empathizes and yet comes across knowledgeable, understanding and extremely formidable.
The Kralahome (Brian Rivera) mirrors Almedilla’s representation of the strict royal household while also bringing more emotional depth to this character than is typical.
Louis Leonowens (Graham Montgomery) and Prince Chulalongkorn (filled by understudy Marcus Shane for the press performance) parallel the tumultuous relationship between their respective parents, Anna and the King. They fight, they forge friendship and in the end, fall into a pattern of mutual respect. Both actors display a maturity and deep understanding of the parts they play within the “big picture” of this production.
The Royal Princes and Princesses of Siam are crowdpleasers, as usual. With each successive child’s introduction during “The March of the Siamese Children,” laughter and interest is renewed. The Royal Court is also filled with a cast of talented singers and dancers.
The ballet for “Small House Of Uncle Thomas” thrills and radiates beauty. In this wonderfully crafted “play-within-a-play,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is adapted into a poignant Thai fairytale. Lamae Caparas dances as the slave Eliza and is breathtaking to watch. The ensemble tells this tale through song and dance as Princess Tuptim (narrates a clever “retelling.” There are some magnificent moments in this ballet.
Another musical number of note is “Western People Funny,” sung by the Royal Wives. This song often finds itself on the cutting board for its potential racism. However, the careful communication of text and sensitive blocking reverse that potential in this production. It is a blip on the radar, but still a highly unique opportunity for white culture to be seen as “other” rather than continuing to view global cultures through the pervasive lens of the “white and Western eye.”
Lastly, the costumes (designed by Catherine Zuber) are a feast for any eyes from any culture or worldview. The robes of the Royal Court flitter, flap and sparkle across the stage promoting the luxuriant wealth of the King while Anna’s full skirts swing with enormous buoyancy and air. The reveal of “the dress” does not disappoint and is followed by an eruption of applause. “Shall We Dance” brings the house down with its gaiety and romance. It is the one time where all (including the characters with their complicated history and responsibilities) can simply enjoy themselves and be happy in the present, even knowing that it only lasts for a moment!
This Tony Award-winning revival only plays Chicago for a short run this summer. So don’t waste a moment; purchase tickets today.
Broadway in Chicago presents “The King and I” through July 2 at the Oriental Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.