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The King and I at the Hobby is Rich and Intoxicating

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I
Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I
Photo by Matthew Murphy
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The musical works by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II – Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, The Sound of Music – and this beauty, The King and I – are pinnacles of utmost theatrical professionalism. Every subsequent musical has to be judged by what's gone before, and history is buried deep in its DNA. Rodgers & Hammerstein set the standard for the “musical play,” and their works are textbook exemplars of how to do it right. Nothing is wasted or thrown in to mark time, the exposition is terse and pointed, the songs stand alone as character studies, the plot is dense, the characters true.

You may admire the earthiness of Oklahoma, the rowdy wartime camaraderie of South Pacific, the psycho drama of Carousel, the saccharine spirituality of The Sound of Music, but The King and I is the perfect amalgam of this team's particular style. The refined outsider, Anna, is forever changed by her introduction into this alien culture, 19th century Siam, as is the country's despotic king, who desperately wants to move his kingdom into the modern era. The clash of West vs. East hasn't been this tuneful, or thoughtful, until Sondheim rejiggered his mentor Hammerstein and created his own neo-King and I with Pacific Overtures (1976).

Currently running at the Hobby Center for only a few precious days, this is the acclaimed Bartlett Sher production from Lincoln Center Theatre that won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (2015). Other than having the steamship plow over the Vivian Beaumont orchestra pit and into the auditorium, which began the musical with a stunning coup de theatre, this version is as much a replica of that show as is possible on tour, only slightly less populated.

Michael Yeargan's sets with the floating columns and raw silk show curtain glitter anew, Catherine Zuber's Victorian hoop skirts and Thai wraps sparkle and rustle, Donald Holder's lighting is both intimate and enveloping, and choreographer Christopher Gattelli honors Jerome Robbins' original work with stunning homage. (The “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet is entirely intact, and remains one of the wonders of Broadway dance making.) The Asian court is respected, and there are no embarrassing un-p.c. stereotypes on view. This musical is so of a piece, that one has only to recognize what's already there from R&H, stand back, and let it flow. Sher, a Tony Award-winner for his direction of the revival of South Pacific, 2008, does this with grace and immense style and impeccable taste.

What a rich, intoxicating score to work with! A show like this makes you appreciate just how exceptional the theater pros were in the golden days. Almost every song has drilled into our consciousness, yet they seem evergreen in this production: “I Whistle a Happy Tune;” “Hello, Young Lovers;” “The March of the Siamese Children;” “Getting to Know You;” “We Kiss in the Shadows;” “Something Wonderful;” “I Have Dreamed;” Shall We Dance.” This musical is its own American Songbook, and yet each song has its definite place in the story. Remove one, and the musical is lessened.

The King and I made its reputation from Yul Brynner's iconic, award-winning (Tony and Oscar) muscular interpretation of the gruff, childlike King of Siam. He lived off it for decades, and like Rex Harrison's Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, his take on the role is the gold standard. Jose Llana, who starred in the Lincoln Center revival after originator Ken Watanabe left the run, is startlingly his own man. He's neither as commanding nor as dominating as Brynner, but his interpretation, more broadly comic and warm, suits Sher's incisive re-imagining. Llana spars deliciously with Laura Michelle Kelly's Anna, a feisty proto-feminist who knows what she wants but isn't comfortable demanding it. When the King slides his hand around her waist when learning to polka in “Shall We Dance,” the musical turns sensuously sly. This proper English widow would make a very merry widow, indeed. Kelly has a most beguiling singing voice, crystalline and pure, yet with a slight catch that turns her phrasing impetuous and daring. Her voice tells us exactly who she is and what she's thinking.

Wonderfully cast – Joan Almedilla as First Wife, Lady Thiang; Brian Rivera as prime minister Kralahome; Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao as young lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha; Anthony Chang as Prince Chulalongkorn – this radiant musical revives the glories of '50s Broadway.

Hamilton may reign now, but The King and I reigns forever.

The King and I continues at 7:30 p.m. March 15, 16 and 19; 8 p.m. March 17; 2 and 8 p.m. March 18; 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 19 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $35 to $150.

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