Theater review: A gigantic, pretty production of “The King and I” sags at the Buell

Melinda Robinson
By Melinda Robinson January 15, 2018 16:16

Theater review: A gigantic, pretty production of “The King and I” sags at the Buell

Madeline Trumble as Anna and the Royal Children in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” in Denver. (Jeremy Daniel, Provided by Denver Center for the Performing Arts)

“The King and I” is such a beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that only a hard-hearted cynic would dare discount it. Romantic, beautiful, with a strong female protagonist standing up to a spoiled-brat king, cute kids, plus tunes you hum on the way out — what could be bad?

And yet, time and changing values have not been kind to this chestnut.

Director Bartlett Sher’s highly regarded Lincoln Center revival won accolades in 2015 and is now at the Buell Theatre for a two-week run.

While the score remains endearing, and the voices are laudable, the whole enterprise feels both bloated and dated.

Feeling less than topical would be one thing — we don’t revisit classics for political correctness. But the gigantic production seems to sag under its own weight.

The action begins with an immensely impressive delivery: A massive ship deposits a Welsh widow in Siam, where she has come to teach a palace full of royal children the ways of the West. As Anna (Madeline Trumble) whistles a happy tune, the prop rightfully elicits gasps. But the ship is a sign of the outsize production to come. Later, a gigantic statue of Buddha towers over the stage, similarly overwrought.

Is it possible to love the ballads and choreography and still cringe at the depiction of the old-style culture clash and those inscrutable “Orientals”? (The song “Western People Funny,” which opens Act II, manages to have it both ways, evoking and making fun of colonial attitudes.) Yes, it’s possible, but you have to work at it.

Too long, too tedious, this is a case of the modern rendition being perhaps overly faithful to the original. The energy goes out of the theater early on. While the allegorical ballet version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” remains enchanting, the flat feeling of the evening overall is a bit of a puzzlement.

Jose Llana as The King in the Denver production of “The King and I.” (Matthew Murphy, Provided by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts)

“The King and I” which premiered on Broadway in 1951, simply doesn’t hold up as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s riskier “Oklahoma!” (1943) or the more progressive “South Pacific” (1949).

Don’t blame the superb cast: Jose Llana reprises the role of the king after two rounds in the Tony-winning Lincoln Center revival, adding spark and depth to the character. Trumble succeeds beautifully, finding modern humor in the otherwise prim role of Anna. The two give admirable performances individually but together lack chemistry. Q Lim is quite impressive, making her national tour debut as Tuptim.

And while the hits “Hello,Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” remain lovely, there’s little excitement to the proceedings.

Excuse a few opening night gaffes, notably distracting flickering light and shadow problems, backstage noise and slippery props. Those kinks are sure to be ironed out during the run.

Even if this production isn’t fully transporting, the show’s over-arching themes are timeless, including the power of love, the human craving for respect, and the impossible cluelessness of the patriarchy.


Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I”  (three stars)

The Lincoln Center Theater Production. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. With Jose Llana, Madeline Trumble, Joan Almedilla, Q Lim, Kavin Panmeechao. Through Jan. 14 at the Buell Theatre. Tickets available at denvercenter.org.

Published at Fri, 05 Jan 2018 03:50:13 +0000

Melinda Robinson
By Melinda Robinson January 15, 2018 16:16