“The King and I” – ASU Gammage

Theater Review – March 22, 2018


Broadway Across America – Arizona
ASU Gammage
Tempe, AZ

The 2015 Broadway “The King and I” revival is difficult to review as a touring show.  It stopped here this week.  On Broadway this rethinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein classic 1951 masterpiece was a revolutionary look at the familiar show.  This “King and I” moved into the audience on Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre’s thrust stage.  A 30-piece orchestra was underneath the jutting stage that was withdrawn for the overture.  This large orchestral ensemble played Rodgers’ gorgeous score with subtle shadings but here a smaller and heavily amplified ensemble sounds good but lacks the overwhelming Broadway sound.

Like Broadway, the massive sets move as integrated elements of Bartlett Sher’s magnificently staged production but the show’s look is compromised by returning it to conventional stages for the tour.  This change spreads the action out across a massive expanse while destroying the audience connection associated with a thrust stage.

Everyone is good in the touring cast but no one achieves Broadway’s luminescent performances.  Jose Llana’s King (he was a New York replacement) is commanding and dominant as he must be but Llana strangely emphasizes the role’s humor so the cultural differences become laughable instead of amusing.  Llana isn’t bad; he just lacks Ken Watanabe’s New York brilliance.

As Anna Leonowens, the English governess brought to Siam (now Thailand) in 1862 to teach the King’s many children, his flock of wives, and even the King himself, was Kelli O’Hara on Broadway.  She sang the familiar tunes exquisitely and her less-than-perfect English accent still turned her Anna into a multi-layered strong woman when women were usually subservient.  Elena Shaddow tackles Anna here.  Gone is O’Hara’s subtly nuanced transformation into a more complex, opinionated, and biased believer in Western traditions because Shaddow is a conventional Anna, in a performance seen in dozens of previous productions.  Shaddow sings beautifully which saves her performance but she always lacks Anna’s mandatory fire and conviction, something O’Hara brilliantly captured.

A word here about how the tour treats Anna’s hoop skirts.  In New York, the beautifully colored gowns changed the expected color palette used since the 1956 movie version into refreshing new visions.  But hoop skirts must surround the woman and hide her feet and women must float around with stunning beauty, the case with O’Hara.  Here, Shaddow’s gowns are awkwardly raised in the front indicating improper training in how to navigate in these huge dresses and her feet were always visible as she awkwardly clomped around.

The King’s head wife, Lady Thiang, is superbly portrayed by Joan Almedilla and she stops the performance with her touching “Something Wonderful.”  Q Lim’s Tuptim, the King’s gift from his Burmese neighbor, is beautifully sung and acted as is Kavin Panmeechao’s Lun Tha.  I object to small adults playing children’s roles, something the case here as only eight children are listed in the cast.

This “The King and I” revival is the plushest and best staged local audiences will ever see, but it can’t match the greater depth and nuances New York City audiences saw.  This touring “The King and I” plays through Sunday, March 25.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787 order tickets online at www.asugammage.com.

Grade: B