By Kimberly Harper
PPAC continues its Broadway Series with the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” and it’s proof that there really is nothing like a classic musical to remind you why you love theater in the first place.
The story is one you probably know by heart, even if a lot of it needs to be taken in the spirit of the time it was written. It’s colonialism at its best (if there is such a thing), with some hints at a love story and a strong message of doing what you feel is best, even when the right answer is oftentimes confusing. The King of Siam, frightened by the European protectionism that’s overtaking other nearby Asian countries, sends for a teacher to teach his favored children and wives about science, English, and everything else he deems important from the Western world. Enter Anna Leonowens, who, despite being a woman, is absolutely unafraid to speak her mind even when everyone else bows in terror. By the end, both the king and Anna have learned to care for each other – maybe even love, though the writers would never have actually allowed an interracial romance back when this show was written in 1951, so the closest we get is a dazzling whirl around the room during “Shall We Dance.”
Director Bartlett Sher has done a fantastic job with this production. Possibly my favorite part of the entire night was the theater performance within the show in Act 2, put on to impress visiting British ambassadors and based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The dancing is impressive, especially considering many of the dancers are children, and it’s visually stunning. Hats off to choreographer Christopher Gattelli for that.
Laura Michelle Kelly is wonderful as Anna. She’s a pleasure to listen to in songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Shall We Dance,” and hilarious in “Tell You What I Think of You.” But her perfect counterpart is Jose Llana as the king. He’s wry and funny, with a dry, sarcastic wit that you can’t help but laugh at. Far from a one dimensional portrayal however, Llana’s king is also artfully nuanced. We see a man who is conflicted, who is desperate to balance progress with keeping the culture of his country. His primary wife Lady Thiang, played by Joan Almedilla, describes this perfectly in the second act ballad “Something Wonderful.” Almedilla gives us a no-nonsense Lady Thiang who knows when to speak up, when to handle matters on her own and exactly what her husband needs, even if he doesn’t know himself. Despite the lines (many directly from the king) that disparage a woman’s role in society, the women we see on stage show us over and over again just how wrong those words are. They are truly the backbone of the story.
The smaller feature roles and ensemble are equally as gifted. Sometimes dancers, sometimes wives, children and palace servants, sometimes run crew, their voices and personalities make this production a top to bottom delight. It’s visually stunning, powerfully orchestrated and a classic story that will touch your heart and leave you humming the score long after final bows. Whether you’re new to the world of musical theater or just in love with the classics, “The King and I” is one you’ll want to see before it closes Sunday .
The King and I runs through Nov. 6 at the Providence Performing Arts Center, 220 Weybosset St., Providence. Tickets start at $32 and may be obtained at the theater box office, at www.ppacri.org or by calling (401) 421-ARTS.