Starring pair reigns supreme in ‘The King and I’
For the almost-romance and contest of wills between British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam to truly resonate in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,’’ the two actors inhabiting those roles need to be evenly matched.
That symmetry was lacking when Bartlett Sher’s revival premiered at Lincoln Center in 2015. While Kelli O’Hara was terrific as Anna, Ken Watanabe was sorely miscast as the king.
But the necessary equilibrium on the verbal seesaw, along with the sizzle of genuine chemistry, can be seen, heard, and felt in the lavish touring version of Sher’s production, which has arrived at the Boston Opera House, starring Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna, and Jose Llana as the king.
Kelly, so indelible three years ago in “Finding Neverland’’ at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, brings a graceful, luminous presence and a vocal style both crystalline and warm to the role of Anna. Although Llana succumbs to an occasional bout of hammy excess, his portrayal of the king gives us a figure both complicated and compelling.
Well, as complicated as the material allows. Oscar Hammerstein II’s book remains as creaky and old-fashioned as ever. Although Hammerstein was an enlightened man for his time, “The King and I’’ can’t shake persistent overtones of West-knows-best condescension toward the culture and citizens of Siam, including, at times, its king.
The show premiered on Broadway in 1951, starring Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence. For Brynner, it was the role of, and for, a lifetime. He would return to it repeatedly over the decades onstage, and played the king in the 1956 film version opposite Deborah Kerr. Llana’s own roots in “The King and I’’ run fairly deep: In 1996, the Filipino-American actor made his Broadway debut as Lun Tha, the Burmese envoy, in a revival of “The King and I.’’ (Llana also played the king for a couple of stints during the most recent Broadway engagement.)
Kelly’s Anna arrives in Siam with her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) on a ship that slides to the lip of the Opera House stage — the first eye-catching gambit of a production that is a visual treat from start to finish. (The sets are by Michael Yeargan, the sumptuous costumes were designed by Catherine Zuber, and the inventive choreography is by Christopher Gattelli, based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.) Then it’s time for Kelly to sing “I Whistle a Happy Tune,’’ which sounds better than it is thanks to her talent.
It’s the 1860s, and the widowed Anna has come to Siam to teach the king’s children, part of the ruler’s attempt to modernize his country. But there are stringent limits on how far the king is willing to go, setting the stage for clashes between monarch and teacher. Acting as a kind of intermediary is Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), the king’s favorite wife, who makes the case for his essential decency in “Something Wonderful,’’ beautifully sung by Almedilla.
Anna has not forgotten how it feels to be in love — Kelly makes that clear with a shiver-inducing rendition of “Hello, Young Lovers’’ — and she takes the side of Tuptim (Manna Nichols), a slave brought to Siam to become one of the king’s numerous wives. Tuptim is in love with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), and her desperate attempt to run away with him darkens the tone of “The King and I.’’ It also leads to a climactic confrontation between the king and Anna.
But “The King and I’’ doesn’t want you to think too deeply about the fate of those young lovers. The show would prefer that your takeaway image be the scene where Kelly’s Anna and Llana’s king finally act on their mutual attraction, sweeping across the stage together in “Shall We Dance?’’ as if that alone were enough to erase the world’s woes. Just for that moment, it seems to be true.
THE KING AND I
Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based upon the novel “Anna and the King of Siam,’’ by Margaret Landon. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Boston Opera House, trough April 23. Tickets: Starting at $44, 800-982-2787, www.BroadwayInBoston.com