Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV’s, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue
Pictured: Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly. Photo by Matthew Mu.
By Abigail Trabue
The fifth work from the fathers of musical theater, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the KING AND I, based on Margaret Landon’s novel ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM, features a gorgeous score that sweeps us through the story of an English schoolteacher who comes to Siam to educate the children of the King, and consequently, the King himself.
The Lincoln Center production, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, was praised for finding the right amount of character depth when it premiered on Broadway in 2015, an ability Sher easily possesses having also directed Lincoln Center’s acclaimed revival of SOUTH PACIFIC. I did not see that production (which won Kelli O’Hara a Tony for her portrayal of Anna), but it seems little of that depth transferred to the national tour now on stage at the Oriental Theater.
There is no denying this is a beautifully sung show. Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna) is a soprano who makes it all sound so easy, but she felt awkwardly distant from everyone around her Friday night, and her struggle to connect with the King (Jose Llana) made it impossible to accept her journey. I kept looking for the underlying attraction, and it just wasn’t there, which made “Shall We Dance” and everything that followed confusing and downright uncomfortable. With no connection, Anna is nothing more than a servant who keeps her head lower than the King’s. Give us all the lines you want about equality, and “scientific woman,” but if the actors on stage can’t find the needed drive to push these two hurricanes together, we are left with an evening of female bashing humor in which Anna sets the King up over and over like a perfectly honed comedy duo, and the King eventually becomes a caricature of himself looking for the cheap laugh.
By the time the almost 1,800 people around me laughed at the idea that women are interchangeable bowls of white rice, I’d had just about enough of this Ralph and Alice of the 19th century.
And it’s such a shame because both Llana and Kelly are exceptional in their craft. They are no strangers to the work and the world.
But it’s not only Anna and the King who’s lives blur before our eyes. The slave girl — turned Princess Tuptim (Manna Nichols) — longs to be free and loves Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) in secret. Their love, as is so often the case with supporting musical theater characters, is given only the basic of details. We are to accept they are in love by the anguish they demonstrate and by the surprising number of times their suffering propels them to run off stage.
Head wife Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla) has the unique tasking of knowing who the King is and what he requires. She sees all and knows all. She is given the glorious number “Something Wonderful,” and Almedilla is just that in her delivery — something wonderful. Yet, here we have this stunning song that in the context of the show reads more like an abusive wife’s list of reasons why she doesn’t believe her abuser means to hurt her.
“The thoughtless things he’ll do, will hurt and worry you. Then all at once he’ll do something wonderful.”
As one who has used this song in numerous auditions, I know there are other sentiments to be drawn from the lyrics, but they are lost inside the palace of Siam because there is no equality. There is only the will of the King, and Lady Thiang has come to Anna to fulfill a need the King does not want to admit he has. It is unsettling to watch Anna submit to the wishes of Lady Thiang.
Costumer Catherine Zuber has created a world of color inside the palace that is its own study in seamlessly blending two cultures into one cohesive story. The fact that Anna wears red in the final scene was a clear visual statement of where her journey has taken her. Set designer Michael Yeargan’s backdrops add a richness that compliments Zuber’s costumes, and the ever moving columns give the illusion of a vast and expansive palace.
But it’s in the second act, during the ballet of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” that the production finally comes together. As Tuptim recites a variation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist tale UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, she draws parallels between the slavery she herself is bound by and that of the slave Eliza (captivatingly danced by LaMae Caparas). Using the original Jerome Robbins choreography as a base, Christopher Gattelli has given us a wealth of material, drawing from the art of Kabuki, with hints of Noh theater, Ballet, and Modern. Tuptim’s rendition is both unsettling and heartbreaking and the dancers who bring it to life are exquisite.
There is no denying Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote incredible music, they shaped and influenced much of the musical theater world we know today. And while my love for THE KING AND I score will never fade, I doubt I’ll ever be able to reconcile myself with this story of Anna and her King, no matter how much depth and understanding, etc, etc, etc, can be found.
THE KING AND I runs through July 2nd at the Oriental Theater. For more information visit broadwayinchicago.com.