by Leah Wright | Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Barlett Sher has brought Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I to the stage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center in a grand show of color and movement. From the very moment the curtain opens to reveal a brilliantly colored backdrop and a steamer ship that looks as if it will take off through the audience at any moment, the audience is mesmerized.
The production is based on a true story, as represented in the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. The story is that of a British schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, who was brought to Siam (modern-day Thailand) by the King of Siam, to teach his many children and wives. The roles were originally popularized by Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, both of whom won well-deserved awards.
Laura Michelle Kelly brings a freshness the role of Anna and entices the audience with her wonderfully resonate and perfectly smooth vocals. Her passion for the role is palpable and one can feel the joy she feels as she recites her lines and draws you in with her melodies. Jose Llana is brilliant as the King and brings a wonderful playfulness to the role. His facial expressions delight the audience and soften some of the more serious themes of the production. By the end, everyone’s hearts are opened to loving this man who in the beginning, is the unlikeable antagonist. Some of the most delightful moments in the production are when the two appear on stage together, trading barbs and witticisms.
Joan Almedilla, appearing as Lady Thiang brings an overall sophistication to the show (her real-life son, CJ Uy appears as one of the King’s children). As the “head wife” in a time when the King of Siam had many wives, Lady Thiang serves as the leader for the others and pushes certain people in the right direction when a gentle nudge is needed. It’s easy to see who is really in control of the palace, and it’s not the King.
Especially delightful is the play within a play, The Small House of Uncle Thomas. It is a beautiful and touching editorial on slavery, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The play is reflective of the author Tuptim’s (Q Lim) own experiences and serves as a moment of tension and beautiful movement during the show.
The visuals presented in the production are beyond stunning. Gone are the elaborate and heavily detailed sets of the movie and the earlier stage productions and in their place are columns that seem to float from spot to spot, focal points such as Buddha’s shrine, and beautiful costumes that flow with such ease. The perfectly designed lighting lends the appropriate mood to each scene and brings out certain details that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Overall, The King and I is a brilliant production that is enjoyable by all ages. Children will delight in the costumes and colors and they will laugh at Jose Llana’s wonderful facial expressions. The adult themes have been softened in comparison to earlier productions and will be missed entirely by most children.