The King and I Still Delights — Even If the Story Is Suspect

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in The King and I
Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in The King and I
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Anna and the King of Siam first emerged in popular culture in 1944 as a novel by Margaret Langdon, which she based on the memoirs (now considered suspect) of Anna Harriette Leonowens, a British widow who taught English in the court of the King of Siam between 1862 and 1867. There followed the film and stage versions, with the king variously played by Rex Harrison, Chow Yun-fat and, most famously, Yul Brynner, and Anna realized by such prominent actresses as Irene Dunne, Gertrude Lawrence, Deborah Kerr and Jodie Foster.

This touring production directed by Bartlett Sher features Laura Michelle Kelly as the plucky and principled schoolteacher who introduces democratic and feminist values to Siam’s feudal court, and Jose Llana as the country’s absolute monarch, who regards women as property and demands blind obedience from all his subjects, yet yearns to modernize and guide his nation into the 19th century.

As Anna, Kelly radiates warmth and intelligence, successfully embodying a brave single woman with an ethical spine. Llana, however, relies heavily on shtick at the expense of a deeper exploration of his character’s struggle, so his relationship with Anna has less meaning, and the tug at your heartstrings in the final cathartic scenes is a pretty weak one.

The supporting dramatic performances also are wanting, in varying degrees. There’s minimal chemistry between Lun Tha and Tuptim (Kavin Panmeechao and Manna Nichols), the young lovers who stoke the king’s ire, although they do deserve credit for their melodious rendering of “We Kiss in a Shadow.” Likewise, as head wife Lady Thiang, Joan Almedilla sings a compelling “Wonderful” but neither her spoken performance nor Anthony Chan’s as the Crown Prince has much dimension.

That said, the supporting ensemble, including its delightful youngest members, is lovely, lithe and captivating throughout, and the staging of Tuptim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a collective standout. The choreography and costumes are wonderful, and the music is as romantic and affecting as ever, so if you love this kind of stuff, it’s still there to be appreciated.

Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through Jan. 21; (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com.


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