'The King and I' transports audiences at the Kennedy Center in Washington

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Set in the 1860s, “The King and I,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, tells the tale of Anna Leonowens (played by Laura Michelle Kelly) — governess, friend and “adviser” to the King of Siam (played by Jose Llana). Luxurious fabrics, vibrant colors, beautiful music and a talented cast bring a Southeast Asian palace to life in the Opera House at The Kennedy Center in Washington, through Aug. 20.

Throughout the play the audience gets glimpses into each person’s thoughts on what is happening in the palace, and often, how the characters feel about the king on a personal level. 

“The King and I” shows the relationships of the king and Anna — often tumultuous, yet funny at times as they try to understand each other’s viewpoints. The role of Lady Thiang (played by Joan Almedilla) — the king’s head wife — is tricky, and she subtly helps manipulate the relationship between Anna and the king. She sees Anna as an ally who the king may actually listen to — as long as he thinks it was his idea. Anna’s position as teacher and role model to the children, including Prince Chulalongkorn (played by Anthony Chan) — the king’s successor — becomes important at the end of the play. And finally, Tuptim (played by Manna Nichols) is sent to the king as a gift from the king of Burma, even though she loves another man, Lun Tha (played by Kavin Panmeechao). Her resentment of her position as a junior wife — essentially a slave — is made clear.

During a scene in the schoolroom, Anna shows the children a map of Siam and how small it is compared to the rest of the world. She sings probably the most well-known song of the show, “Getting to Know You” about how the children have taught her to love them and their country.

The king interrupts this lesson, calling Anna his “servant” and makes her angry. She voices her frustrations with the king’s view of women in the song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You.” In contrast, Lady Thiang sings “Something Wonderful” about her true love and support for the king.

In the meantime, the king is troubled that he has received word that the British perceive him as a barbarian, and Anna is shocked to learn of these accusations. She doesn’t agree with his role as a polygamist (a common practice until the 1930s in what is now Thailand), but does not think he deserves that evaluation. She agrees to help him show the British how civilized they are, and dresses the women in his household in European-style gowns complete with hoops —  a funny scene with Lady Thiang and the other Royal Wives singing “Western People Funny” — that doesn’t exactly go as planned.

A dinner and show is arranged for the visiting British envoy, Sir Edward Ramsey (played by Baylen Thomas) — and coincidentally an old flame of Anna’s. An elaborate play called “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” written by Tuptim and performed by the entire cast as a ballet, is a blunt message of anti-slavery, and based off the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This displeases the king, and Tuptim plans an escape with Lun Tha after the performance, which, sadly doesn’t end well for anyone.

Among powerful vocal solos (Kelly and Nichols in particular); minimal, yet effective sets; stunning costumes; and a palpable chemistry between actors, “The King and I” transports the audience to a time and place that has been memorialized on stage and screen since the 1950s. The show runs almost three hours, but the story and music is so engaging the time flies by quickly.

Watch out for: Themes of slavery and polygamy.

If you go
“The King and I” runs through Aug. 20. The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St., N.W., Washington. For tickets call 202/467-4600 or go to kennedy-center.org.

 

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017