By Beki Pineda
THE KING AND I – Music by Richard Rodgers; Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Directed by Bartlett Sher. Presented by Denver Center for the Performing Arts Broadway (Buell Theatre, 15th and Curtis, Denver) through January 14, 2018. Tickets available at 303-893-4100 or denvercenter.org.
THE KING AND I was the fifth in a long string of successful Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals and one of the most durable. The clash between East and West cultures, the appeal of forbidden loves and the power of the leading roles have given it life for sixty-six years. Like most people in the audience, my introduction to this story was through the movie starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (with voice by Marni Nixon). I remember watching it at a matinee show and then having to run to the bus to get to my job as a drive-in waitress (on roller skates!) and crying all the way to the restaurant because of the sadness of the ending. It has had that same impact on me every time I’ve seen it since.
The current revival tour which started on Broadway in 2015 presents a sumptuous production designed by Michael Yeargan with simple sets whose gold tones provided a perfect backdrop for the beautiful costumes of Catherine Zuber (for which she won the Tony that year). Also coming from Broadway are Jose Llana, who tours in the role of the King, and Joan Almedilla, the King’s principal wife, Lady Thiang. Q Lim, who understudied Tuptim on Broadway, moves up to principle artist for the tour. It is not surprising that a number of ensemble members also come from the Broadway revival. All in all, a strong talented cast brings this story to life.
Most audience members are familiar with the story that pits an English schoolteacher, hired to bring the children of Siam into the 19th century, against the King, who hired her but resents her English independence once she arrives. Mrs. Anna teaches both the children and the King in Western ways and comes to love all. An open relationship between her and the King would have been unsuitable, so Rodgers and Hammerstein invented sub-characters Tuptim, a “present” to the King, and Lun Tha, the man who delivers her to the King, as a pair of shadow lovers. This gave the playwrights the chance to include the soaring love songs they do so well, such as “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”. While the King is often made to seem foolish in his beliefs, he is always portrayed as sincere in his desire to improve his country and his own ability to be a good king. He admits his confusion in the comic song “Is a Puzzlement” and tells his son that he will know how to be a king only when he is one.
While originally written as a star turn for Broadway actress Gertrude Lawrence, with the role of the King expected to be a supporting role, Yul Brynner forever changed that perception. Jose Llana carries on the tradition of a strong, sometimes ruthless, sometimes comical King. He infuses the role with real humanity, displaying both confidence and insecurity in equal measures. His relationship to Mrs. Anna slides from resentment to need, from companionable humor to potential passion. Llana added a simple gesture to the end of his final argument with Mrs. Anna – the grasping of his heart as though in pain – to explain the confusion of how his character could go from being a strong vital man in one scene and on his deathbed in the next.
Madeline Trumble plays Anna with a simplicity that is marked by honesty and sincerity. She matches the King in finding the humor in their relationship and seems to become genuine friends with the children and their mothers. She brings emotion to “Hello, Young Lovers” as she remembers the love she had for her deceased husband and unadulterated humor to her rendition of “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” as she curses the King.
The most beautiful voice in the production belongs to Q Lim, as Tuptim, the unwilling concubine. Her duets with Kavin Panmeechao, playing her lover, are the musical highlights of the production. Joan Almedilla, as Lady Thiang, the principle wife and most knowing of the King and his ways, brings real substance and importance to the role. She has been with the King the longest and knows his heart the best. She sees the important role Anna can play in his life and rather than resent it, encourages it. She knows best that “this is a man who tries”.
The King’s hundreds of children are reduced to about a dozen favored offspring for the production and they are all delightful. “The March of Siamese Children” being presented to Anna for the first time is always a showstopper and this production does not disappoint. The ballet that accompanies Tuptim’s version of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is beautifully realized as well. There are just no negatives in this production. It is humorous, beautifully presented, gloriously sung, and strong in every way.
A WOW factor of 9.5!