As another famous musical once said “It starts at the very beginning.” The opening sequence is proof that this is a different THE KING AND I that you may have expected from the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. With sets, colors, and costumes setting the tone, THE KING AND I playing at the San Diego Civic Theatre through July 1st is a richly hued journey into the exotic.
A large ship sails into the port of Siam, on its decks a woman and her son looking out on the homes and buildings thrown into sharp relief by the dramatic sunset. Anna Leonowes (Elena Shaddow) summoned by the King (Jose Llana) to teach his children in the ways of the West, is bringing the audience along on her journey into Siam.
Past productions sometimes veer into more Anglicized versions of this tale. Often told through the lenses of the Anna’s English eyes the location and culture can seem muted or caricatured depending on the production. This version turns the tables, placing Anna firmly in the mysterious and the unknown with no friends or family there to help; establishing place, power, and her strangeness in this strange land.
Based on the 1951 musical, while Anna is there she forms a friendship with the King; his autocratic and demanding nature clashes with her sense of independence and more modern conventions on love and relationships. Though both are very different from each other, her attitude intrigues the King and convinces him of her “scientific mind” a thing her thinks they share. Friendship and admiration, tinged with a hint of attraction help keep the bitter and the sweet of this plot balanced.
Shaddow as Anna has a lovely voice, a sharp delivery, and a winning charm. It’s easy to see why the King is so taken with her. She has the no nonsense demeanor of Mary Poppins, and a tender heart that has her quickly falling in love with her pupils.
Llana as the King is charismatic as he quickly pivots from commanding, to playful, to exasperated. His majesty feels at war with how to keep his country independent in this modern era. Though his more traditional sensibilities feel under siege by this strange new world of judgment and “help” from the West.
Their bickering builds to a fun balance by the end of the first act. By the time “Shall we Dance?” starts you see the fondness and fun they have for and with each other, quickly followed by the proof that some differences are too vast to cross.
Supported by an excellent and large supporting cast, this show uses them to great impact in crowd scenes, in silhouette as they dance, and in how they are each impacted by this teacher in their midst. Clandestine lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha (Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao) find an ally to their forbidden romance, and the heir to the throne Prince Chulalonkorn (Charlie Oh) has his world opened up beyond the borders and traditions of Siam.
Standouts are Lady Tiang (Joan Almedilla)) the King’s chief wife and Kralahome (Brian Rivera) the King’s Prime Minister. Almedilla brings a sense of steel and sentimentality to the role, as a woman shrewd enough to know how the King works, and how she can be of the best use to him and her son. Her “Something Wonderful” is both a testament to Tiang’s sense of romance and realism of the man they all depend upon to rule the country.
As Kralahome, Rivera cuts an imposing figure when first introduced to the audience but brings humor, a traditional nature, and a clear love and loyalty to this King and country.
Lim also shines as Tuptim with a beautiful voice showcased well in “My Lord and Master” and ‘I Have Dreamed.”
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli is beautiful and avoids cultural condescension. In“The March of the Siamese Children” where each child is presented, they each get to have a moment that expresses their individuality. The Siamese ballet of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is breathtaking, and that famous polka style dance of “Shall We Dance” is fun and romantic.
Reveling in spectacle, on a set by Michael Yeargan, this Siam is full sumptuous silks in saturated colors, accented with golden columns and enhanced by rich and dramatic lighting by Donald Holder. In costumes by Catherine Zuber each character is richly outfitted in colors and fabrics to match their surroundings.
THE KING AND I brings a classic musical, via Siam, to San Diego making it truly something wonderful.
Playing through Sunday, July 1st tickets and showtime information can be found at www.broadwaysd.com