On Tuesday my wife and I attended opening night of “The King and I” at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Growing up in New Jersey I can still recall the television commercials on local stations for the 1985 revival on Broadway with the formidable Yul Brynner. Even as a young boy I was mesmerized by the elaborate costumes, the dancing, and of course the incredible music. Somehow I never made it up to NYC to see the show so it was a thrill to go see the touring production during their visit to Durham.
The original production dates back to 1952 with the story setting even further back in 1860’s Bangkok. Laura Michelle Kelly is wonderful as Anna Leonowens, a widowed British schoolteacher hired by the King of Siam, played by the funny and talented Jose Llana, to help teach his many children and wives about western culture in an attempt to modernize his country. Cultural clashes lead to a complicated relationship between the two but ultimately they develop a bond and become confidants that in the end teach each other valuable life lessons.
I really loved this show. While the central story is a bit dated with themes of male chauvinism and slavery, it’s presentation is somewhat softened for this more modern version of the show, with very little actual violence and ample doses of humor. It still has a powerful message, but I think it is conveyed in a manner that is adapted for today’s views on such issue and in the end is more thought provoking while still entertaining.
Actually this was my favorite show of the Broadway series that just wrapped up at DPAC. Several things about this particular production really stood out to me. First of all, the singing was amazing. The vocals by the leads and supporting cast were world class. Listening to the Kelly and Llana was a delight. They each had a commanding presence on stage and from the first number until the final curtain they owned each number and filled the theater with heartfelt versions making them truly their own. They also had great chemistry on stage that made for a very believable complex relationship between their characters as their feelings and perspectives evolved as the story developed and two began to better understand each other.
Manna Nichols voice was equally amazing. Nichols plays the role of Burmese princess Tuptim, who is presented to the King as a peace offering early in the show. She has several scenes where she secretly meets her lover Lun Tha, played by Kavin Panmeechao. Their tragic love story underscores the long road ahead for the King and his country until together they accept the modern age and abandon slavery and oppression. I would be remiss to not mention the incredible talent of Joan Almedilla. She has a standout performance as the kings first wife Lady Thiang. Together the leads and supporting cast delivered amazing performances from start to finish.
The sets for this production where also very elegant an inspiring with beautiful hand-painted backdrops instead of the popular modern projections you see so often these days. The color schemes or red and gold and the fiery sunsets in the background transported you to a different time and place. Something about this more traditional approach to sets for such a classic musical added a majestic quality to the production for me. I was awestruck by the very first scene when Anna arrives by boat and the stage is suddenly transformed into a port with a large boat pulling in. Moments later the boat is magically pulled in half and turned around to transform into the setting with small buildings on the dock of Bangkok.
Finally, the music and the orchestra are also to be commended. I loved how the show started out featuring the band and the conductor (actually shining a spotlight) on the conductor. It was wonderful to hear a full pit orchestra bring the classic music of this production to life. I think it is a great reminder that the amazing talent of the live orchestra provides the life-blood to a stage production.
This production of the “King and I” is a real treat and perfect night at the theater showcasing everything that an amazing classic musical with a dose of modern sensibilities can be.
“The King and I” has performances at DPAC through Sunday, June 11th. For tickets visit https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/the-king-i