BY SANDY STAGGS
Since its premiere in 1951, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The King and I” has been indelibly linked to Russian-born Swiss actor Yul Brynner, who played King Mongkut on and off for some 34 years on the stage and in celluloid.
And while Brynner’s steely dramatic portrayal (and his superhero stance), which garnered both a Tony and Oscar, may be considered the standard bearer of the King of Siam (now Thailand), Jose Llana injects copious amounts of charm, humor and humanity.
Winner of four 2015 Tonys including Best Revival, this Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher has opened its royal palace gates at the Peace Center midway through a nearly two-year North American tour.
And in addition to Filipino-American extraordinaire Llana, who actually played a supporting role in the 1996 Broadway revival, this dazzling and regal musical stars the acclaimed Laura Michelle Kelly (the original “Mary Poppins” in the West End and Broadway’s Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland,” which just ran at the Peace Center last month.
Based on Margaret Landon’s “Anna and the King of Siam,” “The King and I” recounts Anna Leonowens’ adventures as governess to the children and wives of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.
And Greenville could not ask for a more exquisite and exotic production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s masterpiece.
From the magnificent overture by the 16-piece orchestra of primarily local musicians to Llana’s magnetic personality and Kelly’s flawless and empowering delivery of iconic arias such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You,” this “The King and I” is one to cherish and behold.
East meets West is the running theme as King Mongkut hires this British school teacher in an effort to modernize his regime, an at the same time, repel any British (and French) efforts of imperialism.
A curious man (as demonstrated in “Puzzlement”), the King is open to the practicalities of science and technology (the printing press), but is adamant about maintaining his regime and the culture and religion of his subjects. And he finds in Anna a worthy adversary and ally.
Their constant friction and respect for one another that drives this compelling story, but they remain at arm’s length in their relationship. But it’s the clandestine affair between Tuptim (Manna Nichols), the slave girl who was a gift from the King of Burma, and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) that not only provides the central romantic thread (“We Kiss in a Shadow”), but also its other thematic offering about slavery.
Of course, President Lincoln is engulfed in the American Civil War when our story begins, and Tuptim’s parallel subplot culminates in the mesmerizing narrated ballet “Small House of Uncle Thomas” inspired by “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which comes off here as epic as the dream ballet in “An American in Paris.”
Joan Almedilla (known for her starring role in “Miss Saigon”) wowed the audience on opening night the King’s number one wife Lady Thiang (“Something Wonderful”) and is a first-class performer in the hilarious sequence in “Western People Funny,” as the Siamese wives struggle with the Western hoop skirts and leather shoes.
And the procession of adorable children in “March of the Royal Siamese Children” is priceless as they line up to greet their new schoolmistress.
Noteworthy performances are also given by Jonathan Chan as the 15-year-old Prince Chulalongkorn and Brian Rivera as Kralahome, the King’s Prime Minister.
The opening scenic design by Michael Yeargan is buoyed by a Titanic-scale ship that was at first bewildering to this critic as to how they would store that vessel backstage throughout the show. And then it divinely became clear. Yeargan also employs a 10-foot Buddha and a series of traveling gilded columns that add an extra dimension of movement within the palace
And later in “Shall We Dance?” it is impossible not to be transfixed as Llana and Kelly traverse their polka across the stage and meandering in between the moving columns. Bravo!
The Tony-winning costumes and headdresses.by Catherine Zuber are sparkling in the most intricate of details and made of silks and exotic fabric with ample use of fine gold thread and embellishments.
For decades the show had a storied history of casting Caucasian actors in “yellow-face,” but Mr. Sher has gone to great lengths to cast this production authentically with nearly an all-Asian ensemble, save for Kelly, young Graham Montgomery (in perfect Englishman posture and vocal poise) and Patrick Boll as the ship’s captain and British dignitary Sir Edward Ramsay, and a handful of ensemble members.
In addition to Zuber and Yeargan, Sher reunites with his award-winning creative team from “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza”: lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Scott Lehrer, and choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
“The King and I” runs through Sunday, August 27 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. For tickets call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.