Director Bart Sher’s staging goes beyond the 1951 version of “The King and I” and its many charms. It highlights themes in Oscar Hammerstein’s witty libretto and lyrics that resonate today.
A mention of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I” can conjure images of a lusty king dancing with a woman in a sweeping satin ballgown. Or adorable palace children greeting their new governess. Or it may bring chipper tunes like “Getting to Know You” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” to mind.
The 2015 Tony Award-winning revival of “King and I,” on tour at the Paramount Theatre, preserves all those enchantments. The luscious Richard Rodgers score is intact, the exquisite décor and dress of old Siam dazzles. The platonic yet romantic attraction between two strong-willed people, from opposite ends of the globe, engages.
But director Bartlett Sher’s staging delivers beyond the 1951 show’s more obvious charms. In the semi-fictional story of a British teacher’s sojourn in the court of a Southeast Asian monarch, it highlights themes in Oscar Hammerstein’s witty libretto and lyrics that resonate today: the transition of a feudal regime to a more enlightened society, and the responsibilities and challenges of power.
‘The King and I’
Through Feb. 3, Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; tickets from $30 (206-812-3284 or stgpresents.org).
This is achieved within the framework of an elegantly staged and performed entertainment that has old-fashioned melodramatic notes, but is surprisingly spry, witty and timeless too.
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After widowed British expat Anna Leonowens (an ingratiating, sylvan-voiced Laura Michelle Kelly) docks in Bangkok on a large-scale steamer (a marvel of Michael Yeargan’s scenic design), 1860s Siam is quickly peopled with wharf side peddlers, saffron-robed Buddhist monks and fierce royal guards.
Anna and her monarch employer (a magnetic Jose Llana) clash over her living quarters. But sparks soon fly over women’s rights and how to govern, too. She’s an outspoken early feminist; he’s a macho ruler lording it over his many wives and children. He wields absolute authority over his prostrating subjects. She decries the kowtowing, and acts as a human shield to protect his newest wife Tuptim (Manna Nichols) from a whipping.
Yet there are affinities and meaningful exchanges also. She comes to appreciate his culture. And if the King is an autocrat like his forbears, he also tries to bridge East and West. A student of science and religion, an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, he wants Anna to bring his children (and him) into the modern age.
He also needs advice to prevent European powers from colonizing Siam (now Thailand), and contemplates building a wall to keep out foreigners. (Given our new president’s similar plans, this draws some audience reaction.)
The relationship between the two (inspired by the book, “Anna and the King of the Siam”) is complex and dynamic, and often humorous in Llana’s performance. He’s youngish for the role, and his mugging sarcasm can feel excessive. But Llana adeptly captures the king’s many moods: his boyish delight as he polkas with Anna to “Shall We Dance?,” his rage over slights and betrayals, his filial warmth during the delightful “March of the Siamese Children.”
Along with the well-served score, including Joan Almedilla’s stirring rendition of the poignant ode “Something Wonderful,” the production preserves the innovative “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” number devised by Jerome Robbins in the initial “King and I” production. It incorporates (as does Christopher Gattelli’s new choreography) the vibrant moves of traditional Southeast Asian dance forms.
Yeargan’s exemplary design eschews gaudiness for vivid minimalism, seen with the boat and a giant Buddha statue. Donald Holder’s color-infused lighting, and Catherine Zuber’s Tony-awarded costuming, are great enhancers.
And one appreciates the Class A tour with more than 30 in the cast, and a full orchestra.