Thursday, June 29, 2017

Shall We Dance? A Royally Impressive Touring Take on 'The King and I' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The King & I
National Tour of Lincoln Center Broadway Revival
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 2

Just last year, I saw a stellar production of The King and I as the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 4th annual staging of a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. (It had been many years since I saw it last, and then it was sung in Danish as I was visiting Copenhagen.)

As I wrote in my review, I admired and enjoyed it, but--presuming the production provided a good indication--it gave me the sense that I didn't love it quite as much as R&H's four other masterpieces.

Of course, saying The King and I is the 5th best Rodgers & Hammerstein musical--behind, IMO, The Sound of Music, South Pacific (not yet done by Lyric, as they staged Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady this year), Oklahoma and Carousel--is a bit akin to suggesting A Hard Day's Night is the 5th best Beatles album (some might argue The White Album) behind Sgt. Pepper's, Revolver, Abbey Road and Rubber Soul.

Each is still among the greatest creative works ever made by, arguably, the defining artists of their respective idioms.

But in the 1951 musical about an English schoolteacher visiting Siam (now Thailand) to teach the
children of that country's king, certain aspects can ring culturally insensitive nowadays.

Or at least a bit askew.

And while there are undeniably brilliant showtunes that I love--"I Whistle a Happy Tune," the glorious "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance"--and several other fantastic songs, in terms of numbers that prompt me to tap my toes or sing along (quietly but blissfully), I just found The King & I a bit lesser than its brethren.

As such, I don't know that I ordinarily would have opted to see any production of The King & I just a year later, but my Broadway in Chicago subscription series included a touring version based on a Lincoln Center (NYC Broadway) production that drew raves.

Especially as it stars Laura Michelle Kelly--an actress I greatly enjoyed as Mary Poppins in London, and more recently in Finding Neverland on Broadway--is directed even on tour by the highly acclaimed Bartlett Sher and was absolutely lauded by the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones, I was quite excited to see it Tuesday night at the Oriental Theatre.

Given the magnificent Eastern ornamentation of that venue's interior, it was the idyllic place to see The King & I, and from the performances--by Kelly as Anna, Jose Llana, reprising his Broadway stint as the King, and many others including Manna Nichols (Tuptim), Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang), Kavin Panmeechao (Lun Tha) and Brian Rivera (Kralahome)--to the scenery, costumes and choreography, everything about this rendition is splendid.

Though I liked the Lyric's take, this one is just better.

Yet I still can't say it fundamentally changed my high-yet-not-paramount opinion of the musical itself.

In ways that Chris Jones spelled out far better than I can, Sher helped strike a better tonality that helped better balance how the King's developing Siam is depicted in contrast to the British Empire during a time of colonialism.

But while the production values are superb, Kelly exquisite of voice and demeanor, songs like "A Puzzlement," "Something Wonderful" and "I Have Dreamed" delivered terrifically by Llana, Almedilla and Nichols & Panmeechao respectively, and the hum-along gems truly resplendent, for me, in sum, the musical still wasn't quite perfect.

There are places where, for me, the show's pacing seems to lag, and--as at Lyric--the extended "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (i.e. Uncle Tom's Cabin) ballet performed by the children, who themselves are all first-rate, couldn't prevent my mind from wandering.

Relative to the abundant wonders throughout The King & I--and this rendition in particular--these are rather small quibbles.

If you love musicals and want to be well-versed in the classics of the canon, you really should get down to the Oriental before this run closes on Sunday.

It's quite possible you won't see The King & I done any better elsewhere.

But if, like some I know, you saw the Lyric production last year, I don't know that this staging makes it imperative or important to revisit the material so soon, even though the cast, Sher's choices and overall feel are superior.

Etc., etc., etc. (as the King quips repeatedly throughout the show).

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