‘The King and I’ demonstrates the timeless quality of Rodgers and Hammerstein

By MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

There are American composers who create classical music in a European tradition.

But often when we think of classical music, the Germans and Russians tend to loom much larger than the Yankees.

America’s largest, most important, contribution to timeless music is our Broadway tradition.

Yes, London’s West End has given us Andrew Lloyd Webber. But the composing teams behind our stage musicals—people like Stephen Sondheim (“Into the Woods,” “Sweeney Todd”) and George Gershwin (“Porgy and Bess,” “Girl Crazy”)—are our Beethovens and Tchaikovskys.

My thoughts turn to the sophistication of Broadway after seeing the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” at The Bushnell in Hartford on May 30.

Rodgers and Hammerstein truly were one of the most talented teams in the Broadway musical tradition. They deserve to be labeled as American classical music.

The Lincoln Center Theater Production National Tour clearly made a conscious decision to highlight the sophistication of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1951 musical, which follows the relationship between the King of Siam, vying to modernize his nation, and a school teacher who is vehicle for facilitating that change through his children.

The orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett were sumptuous. They highlighted the complexity of the compositions while still paying tribute to their beauty. And music coordinator David Lai and conductor Gerald Steichen – and the orchestra—clearly adore the score based upon the nuances and passion I heard rising from the orchestra pit.

Vocals by the performers also were exquisite.

Leading the list for kudos goes to Laura Michelle Kelly who is the “I,” school teacher Anna Leonowens, of the title “The King and I.” Her soprano was light, effortless, full of power and personality. She was a delight on such well-known songs as the joyful “Getting to Know You” and the touching “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang also was wonderful and touching on “Something Wonderful.’

Manna Nichols as Tuptim also was a delight on such songs as her duet with Kavin Panmeechao, “I Have Dreamed” or her solo on “My Lord and Master.”

Although his role provided more opportunities for song-speak rather than lyrical vocals, Jose Llana as the King also provided a good deal of musicality to a role that was originally performed by non-singers such as Yul Brynner.

Hearing the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein in a live setting was enough of a draw to check out the production that rolled into Hartford.

But the overall production and acting were superb.

I found especially enjoyable the ballet sequence of “The Small House of uncle Thomas,” where Tumtim offers an Asian take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It easily could have veered into parody. But the choreography was true to the traditional dances of Siam and was exciting and enchanting to watch.

And the acting, in particular Kelly and Llana, found plenty of nuances in their characters to give the story depth and significance.

Overall, this production of “The King and I” was sumptuous and a delight.

There were a couple of hiccups I noticed. In one of the scenes, where the boat carrying Anna and her son arrived in Bangkok, I could see the legs and feet of the crew person pushing the prop waiting for his cue to move the set piece again. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but he was wearing athletic shoes, which I’m certain weren’t available in 19th century southeast Asia. And in another moment, a backdrop was not pulled out of view until five minutes into scene. It was disruptive watching the piece rise as the actors were performing. And a few times, the actors were standing in the dark as the follow spotlight failed to follow their movements.

But those were minor nuisances—and pretty much confined to the first 15 minutes or so– that could be attributed to a road crew getting used to the infrastructure of a new theater on an opening night in a new city.

I found “The King and I” mesmerizing. And this production gave me renewed respect for the accomplishments of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

I give the production (despite the hiccups) four out of four stars.

“The King and I” runs at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford through Sunday June 4. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.

For tickets, go to www.Bushnell.org

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