Sixty years ago, the American public came to love the story and the music of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” through the classic 1956 film starring Yul Brynner as the King and Deborah Kerr as the British governess Anna Leonowens.
From that time on, despite its beginnings as a Broadway musical, the vibrant tale of a headstrong British schoolteacher summoned by the King of Siam (modern day Thailand) to teach his many children has captured the hearts of people of a certain age, and a younger audience through the 1999 dramatic version.
Although the tale was reborn through many incarnations, the 2015 Broadway revival on stage won multiple Tony Awards. Fortunately for local theatergoers, the Lincoln Center musical production of “The King and I” has come to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In in its inception, the stage version was inspired by Anna Leonowens’ memoirs of her time in Siam teaching King Mongkut’s many children and wives, which were later converted into a novel, “Anna and the King of Siam” (1944) by Margaret Landon, the basis for Rogers and Hammerstein’s iconic musical. The theatrical performance based on that novel premiered on Broadway in 1951.
The lavish and lovely revival, starring Jose Llana (the King) who also played the original role, also plays the lead in this touring company opposite Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna). Their voices bring strength and nostalgia to the classic tunes that made “The King and I” timeless, such as “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance” and “Hello Young Lovers.”
But unlike the film, it is refreshing to see a multicultural cast that looks much more like the people of the Kingdom of Siam would have looked, and their talents make this production still feel like an exotic escape to a fantastical world, thanks in large part to the works of the original creative team for the Broadway version — set designer Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber (who won a Tony for her work), lighting by Don Holder and sound by Scott Lehrer.
The play is stunningly beautiful, even in its adherence to the original script that dealt with human rights (in the involuntary gifting of the young Burmese girl, Tuptim, to the king), misogyny and racial perceptions.
Bartlett Sher, director of “The King and I” both on the Broadway and touring production, gave much of the credit for the enduring power of the play to lead actor Llana.
“Jose was so superb on Broadway in ‘The King and I’ that I begged him to join us on the tour and I feel we are incredibly lucky to have him,” Sher said. “He brings such joy and virility and strength to the King. And he is one of Broadway’s great talents.”
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins. It shone through particularly in the performance of the dancers opening the play in traditional Siamese costumes, and in the theatrical presentation of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” staged by Tuptim (Manna Nichols), who had read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and used the ballet to protest her own enslavement to the King.
Also bringing poignancy and power to the role of Lady Thiang, the King’s senior wife, Joan Almedilla’s commanding vocals and presence as the conscience of the King stood out. The many actors playing supporting roles as the children and wives of the King also brought a sweet innocence and humor to the play.
“The King and I” plays at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with 1:30 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday through Aug. 20. For more information, go to www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.