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updated: 6/18/2017 10:11 AM

'King & I' tour resplendent with strong cast, sumptuous designs

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  • The King (Jose Llana) learns the polka from Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) during the song "Shall We Dance?" in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

    The King (Jose Llana) learns the polka from Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) during the song "Shall We Dance?" in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

  • The schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) arrives in Bangkok in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

    The schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) arrives in Bangkok in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

  • The Burmese lovers Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao sing "We Kiss in a Shadow" in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, July 2.

    The Burmese lovers Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao sing "We Kiss in a Shadow" in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago through Sunday, July 2.
    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

  • Michiko Takemasa as Little Eva in "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet in Act II of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I." The national tour of Lincoln Center Theater's Tony Award-winning 2015 revival continues at Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, July 2.

    Michiko Takemasa as Little Eva in "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet in Act II of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I." The national tour of Lincoln Center Theater's Tony Award-winning 2015 revival continues at Chicago's Oriental Theatre through Sunday, July 2.
    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

  • The schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) sings the song "Getting to Know You" to the royal children in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

    The schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) sings the song "Getting to Know You" to the royal children in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

  • The King (Jose Llana) learns the polka from Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

    The King (Jose Llana) learns the polka from Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) in Lincoln Center Theater's national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which continues at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.
    Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

  • Video: "The King and I" montage

 
 

Can too much of "The King and I" in Chicago be a bad thing?

A little over a year after the Lyric Opera of Chicago imported an acclaimed 2014 production from Paris, Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic 1951 musical is back again in the Windy City -- this time as a national tour of Lincoln Center Theater's Tony Award-winning 2015 Broadway revival at the Oriental Theatre.

Director Bartlett Sher restores more of the original text and music for the Broadway revival. There's more pointed political dialogue about land-grabbing colonialism (the Siamese King's outburst about building a wall around his country feels uncomfortably prescient). The often-cut Act II opener "Western People Funny" is smartly reinserted here to question oppressive European women's fashions being foisted upon the royal wives.

The tour may not sound as symphonically lush as the resident Lyric Opera orchestra, but it does edge ahead in terms of visual splendor. Catherine Zuber's Tony Award-winning costumes are resplendent against Michael Yeargen's slightly more elaborate sets (don't be late or you'll miss the impressive steamer ship arriving on the shores of Bangkok in the opening scene).

Laura Michelle Kelly -- an English actress who won an Olivier Award for playing the title role in "Mary Poppins" -- is perfect casting as the widowed Anna Leonowens, a real-life schoolteacher who taught in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s. Kelly's soaring soprano and no-nonsense British temperament makes her a sparkling stage presence.

As the King of Siam, "King and I" veteran Jose Llana skillfully dodges the ossified stock mannerisms that Yul Brynner stamped into the role, so his King is more his own. Llana also makes for a delightful sparring partner to Kelly's Mrs. Anna (when the two dance the famed "Shall We Dance?" polka, it's pure heaven).

Also impressive is Joan Almedilla as Lady Thaing, the King's principal wife who is a canny behind-the-scenes operator. Almedilla's soaring rendition of "Something Wonderful" lives up to its title.

As the secretive Burmese lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao are respectively solid (though Nicols' high notes in the songs "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" sound oddly swallowed rather than bursting forth).

Christopher Gattelli's choreography, based upon the original work of Jerome Robbins, is also masterfully executed by the skilled ensemble -- particularly for "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet.

So for those who saw "The King and I" at the Lyric Opera, the sumptuous national tour offers many extras and plusses to make a second visit very worthwhile. And for Chicago audiences who missed out last year, they should consider themselves lucky to have another fine take on Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical so soon.

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