PPAC's "The King and I": Something Wonderful?

Jose Llana & Laura Michelle Kelly in "The King and I"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

It can't be possible that it has been sixty-five years since the beloved musical The King and I first saw the light of a marquee, but it's true. One of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most enduring works, it had its Broadway premiere in 1951, running for three years. Based on a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam, in turn based on the true life story of Anna Leonowens (ironically in real life an Anglo-Indian) in her memoir about the clashing of cultures. That original production won the Tony Award for Best Musical and in four other categories. Its recent mounting on Broadway won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (as did its 1996 incarnation), and it's this 2015 production that is beginning its National Tour at Providence Performing Arts Center. The film version in 1956 was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five of them, despite having three of the actors' singing voices dubbed (most notably Marni Nixon for Deborah Kerr). Thus it's been a mainstay of musical theater for what seems forever. And it's not difficult to see why.

What can you say about a musical that has a score of hits including Whistle a Happy Tune, My Lord and Master, Hello Young Lovers, Getting to Know You, We Kiss in a Shadow, A Puzzlement, Something Wonderful, I Have Dreamed, and Shall We Dance? And that's not even including the pageant-like March of the Siamese Children and the inspired ballet Small House of Uncle Thomas. Just about all of the songs have become standards, with the exception of some numbers omitted in the film version, such as the one sung by the King's wives in Western People Funny, (a bit dated and bordering on the politically incorrect at this point) and the solo number for Anna, Shall I Tell You What I Think of You. This score all but guarantees success when performed, as it is here, with magnificent singers.

The story of the relationship between schoolmistress Anna (the marvelous Laura Michelle Kelly) and the King of Siam (the powerful Jose Llana) in the early 1860's is thus so familiar it doesn't really need a synopsis. In this production, the strong cast also includes those playing the roles of Anna's son Louis (Graham Montgomery), Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chang) and the Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera), as well as the lovers Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). Rodgers and Hammerstein typically used their talents to portray social causes, as they do in the subplot about the doomed couple not free to follow their own destiny rather than the whims of a dictator (however benevolent). The cast is uniformly excellent, with Kelly, Llana, and Nichols in superb form. Almedilla's Lady Thiang steals the show twice, making the haunting Something Wonderful unforgettable. The creative team has provided a lush and lavish milieu, from the Tony-winning Costumes by Catherine Zuber to the Lighting by Donald Holder and the Sound by Scott Lehrer. Only the Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan is a mixed bag, starting with the smashing first scene of the arrival of the ship, but thereafter fixated on a dull gray wall (whoever thought palaces could be so dreary?). But as capably Directed by Bartlett Sher with fine Choreography by Christopher Gattelli, utilizing original Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, it's still a wonder.

At the end of the play, the orchestra replays the theme Something Wonderful as the prince assumes power and promises changes. It should be a heartbreaking, bittersweet moment, and it is certainly that in this touring version. This is one near-perfect piece of musical theater with a memorable cast and production, eminently suitable for theater buffs of all ages; and, yes, something wonderful.

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