Last night, Rogers & Hammerstein’s The King and I began its weeklong run at The Fox Theatre in Atlanta. The Tony-winning revival directed by Bartlett Sher stars Jose Llana, who played the King of Siam in the show’s 538-performance run on Broadway, and Laura Michelle Kelly (Finding Neverland, Mary Poppins) as British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens.
It’s been more than six decades since the original musical debuted on Broadway, where it became one of the longest-running musicals at the time, inspiring a 1956 movie and providing several songs into the classic Broadway canon, like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance.” Set in Bangkok during the early 1860s, the show follows the special relationship between the conflicted modernist King and Anna, who is brought to Siam with her young son to teach the King’s many wives and children.
There’s truth as well as humor and pathos at the heart of this tale; it was adapted from the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which Margaret Landon based on the real Anna Leonownes’ memoirs after serving as governess to the children of King Mongkut. But it was in need of an update from the mostly Colonial perspective we got in the 1950s original, despite its laudalbe feminism.
The changes brought to Siam aren’t just the work of one Welsh teacher, but the King’s innate curiosity and the wisdom of Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), the King’s head wife. The King’s son Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) struggles with the complexities of ruling an ancient kingdom in an increasingly modern world on his own, and not just through the influence of Anna. And the forbidden lovers Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavn Panmeechao) are their own agents of resistance to the status quo.
But Sher’s revival is, above all, gorgeous. From the sets dropping down from the ceiling to the fluidity of movement on stage, the visuals are inspired even in this slightly pared down production from its Vivian Beaumont Theater. The play-within-a-play in the second act, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is especially alluring, with the ensemble cast in perfect synch. Instead of the coming across as a simplified take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, it’s full of the passion of a woman who sees herself in Eliza’s story.
Since it’s a Rogers & Hammerstein musical, nearly every song is set up for a big, vocally impressive finish, and the touring cast, particularly Kelly and Almedilla rise to that challenge. And Jose Llana captures the complexities of a king who wants to be traditional but scientific, strong but compassionate, feared but loved, etcetera, etcetera and so forth. It all makes it worth revisiting this classic while you can.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief. You can find him on Twitter @joshjackson.