A remarkable ensemble dancing and singing in ceaselessly beautiful costumes makes the current touring version of The King and I at the Orpheum a non-stop visual wonder.
This double step back into history offers much to ponder. When Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II and choreographer Jerome Robbins created it, they were looking back 100 years into a much since-changed period and place. Siam in 1861. 65 years later, a visit to a recreation of what those three talents intended offers a look back into how today’s musicals contrast with some of the 1950s.
In a running time of about three hours Hammerstein was able in his book to develop a solid story line with dialogue of substance and characterizations with some depth while Rodgers could expand, modify and reprise his best music. And Robbins had the space to invent several impressive dance numbers, most especially the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which lives on in this production. Overall, .though, the production feels longer than needed, as if more right for different time.
Essentially the story deals with Englishwoman Anna Leonowens arriving in Siam to help the King modernize his nation, especially in view of Europeans taking over and colonizing nearby Asian territories. He wants her to teach his children and wives not just English but about the changing ways of the world beyond his borders. He’s not sure about changing his own role and about the many protocols attendant on such rule. Anna is not subservient. A sub-plot involves the King’s latest wife, the Burmese slave Tuptim and her imperiled love for her countryman, Lun Tha, still present in the court.
The inclusion of the ballet as an Asian take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s legendary anti-slavery novel would seem, on the face of it, to suggest that slavery is a topic in the story, along with the presence of the never-subservient Tuptim. Furthermore, there is dialogue about Abraham Lincoln at the time of our Civil War, but there is no specific reference to slavery in the U.S. The subject seems to have inspired Hammerstein but it gets scant development.
Laura Michelle Kelly’s singing and interpretation of Anna has solid substance. As the more distinctive and inevitably colorful King, Jose Llana gives him good definition, quirky and impetuous while at the same time suggesting that his behavior stems from self-doubt consistent with the words of the song “A Puzzlement.” Almost a boy. Other excellent performances come from Joan Almedilla as the King’s oldest and most significant wife Lady Thiang and Brian Rivera who gives special dimension to the King’s prime minister, the seemingly severe Kralahome.
On opening night Q Lim’s Tuptim and Kavin Panmeechao’s singing felt quite unsteady. That may have been due to the absence of solid support from the orchestra. The 16-member group, almost all of which is local musicians, unfortunately sounded badly in need of more rehearsals. By now, though, they’ve most likely improved.
The nearly 40 people in the cast, many of whom are Asian, make a wonderful ensemble with fine voices and consistently colorful and impressive movement. And choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s staging honors Robbins’ wonderful inventions. However, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” as magnificent as it looks, comes across as a superfluous insertion. Sure, Tuptim narrates and we could get the inference that a slave tells a story of a slave, but slavery is not the subject of the ballet.
Catherine Zuber’s superb ever-changing costumes remain a wonder and the opening scene set by Michael Yeargan makes you yearn for more such physical impressiveness. What stays on stage thereafter looks utilitarian although cleverly so.
Director Bartlett Sher gets convincing definition from the principal characters, successfully finding humor wherever possible, such as when the King insists that Anna follow court protocol dictating that no person’s head must be higher than his.
Unquestionably Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote truly memorable songs, full of melody, and often with ingenious lyrics such as “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed” and “Shall We Dance?” And Rodgers’ use of a few suggestions of Asian music enhances the score. However, the reprises and sometimes overlong verses, can feel gratuitous.
A re-visit to this classic does have much to offer.
The King and I continues through January 21st, Slosburg Hall, Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th Street. Thurs.: 7:30 p.m. Fri.: 8 p.m. Sat.: 2 & 8 p.m. Sun.: 1:30 & 7 p.m. Tickets $59- $133. https://www.omahaperformingarts.org/