I’ll be honest, I’d never once watched Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I – musical nor theatrical versions, although due to pop culture references I can hum most of the tunes – prior to the Wednesday opening of the Bartlett Sher directed adaptation at Philly’s Academy of Music. Many of the versions years earlier were “whitewashed” in the choices of casting and it never appealed to my senses (you can read a very detailed piece from a 2015 Playbill on the cultural evolution of the casting for the play here).
However, I was quite surprised by the extremely well-acted performances, the casting diversity, the elaborate costumes and beautifully crafted stage sets, and a story that actually challenged the status quo with anti-racist and anti-sexist rhetoric for the period in which it was set.
Based on the semi-biographical novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944) written by Margaret Landon, which was adapted from memoirs written by Anna Leonowens, the musical tells the story of a widowed British schoolteacher named Anna who is hired by King Mongkut of Siam to teach his wives and children, and assist with bringing new concepts to Siam – in an effort to “modernize” it and head off imperialistic rule.
Leads Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna Leonowens) and Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang) were both forces and I enjoyed them immensely, but it was Jose Llana in the lead as King of Siam with his comedic timing and Manna Nichols as the love-struck Tuptim with her magnetizing voice that really made the play for me.
And the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a visualization of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” performed to entertain British nobility at a reception in Act II, was also a highlight – and one of a few references to slavery in the play.
In short, I enjoyed the THE KING AND I way more than expected and would recommend you checking it out while it’s in town. Running now through April 2, there are tickets available for $20 – but I would suggest taking advantage and build a Broadway season package, since you can see 2 shows for as little as $55.20 per person (and 3-show packages amount to approximately $18.40 a show). Additional ticket and show information is available at kimmelcenter.org.
Until next thought, Thomasena