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Touring production gives 'King and I' another shot

Mrs. Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) arrives in Bangkok, The King and I (photo by Matthew Murphy)

It's a Rodgers and Hammerstein summer at the Kennedy Center. First, a touring production of The Sound of Music made a new case for the power of the last collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. This week another touring production, directed by Bartlett Sher, tried to do the same for the duo's The King and I, from 1951. While it is a handsome production visually (sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Donald Holder) and restores some numbers and dialogue that are often cut, this story drawn from real life is still cringe-worthy for its colonial attitudes. One of the restored numbers, "Western People Funny" (!) at the start of Act II, does not help in this regard.

Laura Michelle Kelly was in beautiful voice as Anna Leonowens, the Welsh widow who arrives at the court of the King of Siam in the 1860s to teach the royal children. She had a charming, prickly interaction with the King of Jose Llana, whose humorous arrogance was a greater asset than his voice. Vocal contributions were less stable from Joan Almedilla's Lady Thiang, the King's primary wife (dignified but with some weakness at the top). Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao did fine with the high vocal writing for Tuptim and Lun Tha, but they could not make me care about this secondary plot line, which is the musical's principal dramatic weakness, a poor substitute for a major love story.

Other Articles:

Peter Marks, Who ever wrote swoonier ballads than Rodgers and Hammerstein? (Washington Post, July 21)

Geoffrey Himes, ‘The King and I’ may be from 1951, but this production restored originally stricken lines (Washington Post, July 13)
Sher has done what he can to fumigate the show's fusty jingoism. He has restored some lines deemed too angry or risqué by the show's creators, and a significant number of Asian actors populate the cast. Christopher Gattelli's choreography goes back to the original movements created by Jerome Robbins, with gestures and costumes (generally beautiful, designed by Catherine Zuber) that recall Thai classical dance. It is hard to say if that faithfulness makes the second act's ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (an error-ridden, garbled version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous, problematic novel) less offensive or more offensive.

Robert Russell Bennett has done the same job to the orchestral score that he did with The Sound of Music, a reduction to four string players and eight woodwind and brass players, augmented by unattractive synthesized sound managed by keyboard. This may help maximize profits, but audiences should feel cheated by the sonic element -- with only one-third of the live musicians compared to the original score -- despite competent mixing with the voices by Scott Lehrer. Given the state of most people's listening standards, they likely will not.

The King and I runs through August 20, at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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