Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.

The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.

It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”

As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.

The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.

Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).

Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”

A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com. For information on future tour stops, visit thekinganditour.com.

If this doesn’t raise your spirits, the Nazis win

American in Paris
The cast of An American in Paris (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Love is more important than art, a character proclaims during a key moment from An American in Paris. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s art that makes the musical so memorable.

Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography combine with Bob Crowley’s set and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting and, most of all, George and Ira Gershwin’s ageless jazz tunes to create multiple gifts for the eyes and ears. As for the love story at its center, it mostly amounts to the colorless glue that holds it all together.

Based on the 1951 film about an American (Gene Kelly) who woos a reluctant Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron), the musical took an unconventional path to its 2015 Broadway premiere. It debuted in late 2014 in Paris, where it created a stir despite the language barrier. In addition to its glorious musical numbers, Parisians likely were attracted to its rejiggered plot and setting.

Book writer Craig Lucas moves the tale back to 1945, when the City of Light is struggling to regain its spirit after the dark years of Nazi occupation. Memories of the war affect two central characters in different ways: Jewish American composer Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) is so traumatized that he can write only dirges that fit in with his gloomy view of life. In contrast, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Ben Michael) is determined to move beyond his own war experiences by fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a song-and-dance man.

Unbeknownst to them, Adam and Henri are united by their mutual love of a ballet dancer named Lise Dassin (Allison Walsh). Nor do they know that Lise has a third admirer in the form of American G.I.-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox). Complicating things even further, Jerry attracts the attention of wealthy benefactor Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), who clearly expects sexual favors in return for her valuable patronage.

American in Paris Dance
McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh as Jerry and Lise, the characters played by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the original 1951 film version

Jerry and Lise are the people we’re supposed to care about the most, so it’s disappointing that Maddox and Walsh generate so few romantic sparks. Making up for this in spades, both are lithe dancers and competent singers, as they prove over and over again throughout. (Note: Kyle Robinson fills in as Jerry on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, while Deanna Doyle plays Lise during the Sunday matinee.)

More interesting than the two romantic leads are the dramatic arcs undergone by Adam and Henri, particularly during Act 2. In fact, the second act surpasses its predecessor in terms of both drama and spectacle.

Two late-arriving song-and-dance numbers are alone worth the price of admission: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” led by Henri and Adam; and “An American in Paris,” a surreally amazing piece featuring Lise, her ballet partner (Kevin A. Cosculluela) and the rest of the company. Both are complemented by set designer Crowley’s most sublime creations and the Gershwins’ most powerful melodies.

Other classic tunes include “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” All are accompanied in a full-throated style by a massive band conducted by David Andrews Rogers.

After premiering on Broadway in early 2015, An American in Paris won Tonys for its choreography, lighting, orchestration and scenic design. The touring version excels in those same areas, making it an awe-inspiring experience for anyone who ventures to the Ohio Theatre this week.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present An American in Paris through March 11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State, Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31-$104. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.