When I review a show, I always make it a habit to observe the audience. Tuesday night, while sitting in Clowes Memorial Hall watching “The King and I,” I did my usual observations and was fascinated by how mesmerized and totally connected the audience seemed to be as they took in the action on stage. Except for when I was people-watching, the musical had the same effect on me. I was totally drawn into the story, told by this exceptional national touring company, presented by Broadway in Indianapolis.
“The King and I” premiered on Broadway in 1951 and is based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” which was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. One of composers Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s greatest works, the musical is based on the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center production. Set in Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unorthodox and conflict-ridden relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna, whom the progressive, yet authoritarian monarch brings to Siam to teach his harem of wives and their children.
One of the first things I noticed about the large, international cast is that most of the characters were played by Asians. Having seen numerous professional and non professional productions previously, in which these roles were played by Caucasians, it was gratifying to see a more honest and accurate depiction of these characters.
The quality of the performances was first-rate, especially those of the female leads, Angela Baumgardner, who played Anna, Deanna Choi as Lady Thiang, and Paulina Yeung, who portrayed Princess Tuptim. Their vocal performances were impeccable and reflected the quality one expects when experiencing a Broadway show. Baumgardner was simply enchanting when she sang “Hello, Young Lovers,” Choi enthralling as she sang “Something Wonderful,” and Yeung moved me when she intoned “My Lord and Master.”
Pedro Ka’awaloa turned in a powerfully impressive performance as the relentlessly focused, sometimes impetuous King, yet inwardly kind and loving father. Ka’awaloa and Baumgardner showed vibrant chemistry and exceled at conveying the romantic tension and ambiguity that exist between their characters.
As far as the six young actors who portrayed the King’s children, they all exhibited thorough professionalism and had the charmed audience eating out of their hands from the moment they made their entrance in the majestic “March of the Siamese Children.” Also giving a strong performance was Timothy Matthew Flores as distant and stoic Prince Chulalongkorn, the King’s oldest son and heir.
When it came to the ensemble, each and every dancer shined as they executed Christopher Gattelli’s choreography based on the original choreography of Jerome Robbins. The show’s ballet, “Small House of Uncle Thomas” was simply one of the best musical production numbers I have ever seen. It was truly an exquisite piece of work for its artistry and visual splendor.
Matching the high-caliber and quality of the performances were the sets and opulent costumes, not to mention the lighting design, all of which were in the original Lincoln Center production.
Doing complete justice to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s iconic score, from the overture to the show’s finale, was the production’s proficient orchestra masterfully led David Aaron Brown.
We live in a country which is supposed to be a melting pot, but is now become increasingly nationalistic and thus, hostile to immigrants and people from other cultures, in general. Because of that, “The King and I” couldn’t be more relevant. Its message about finding common ground with those who are different than us and how we can all learn from one another is what one can take away from “The King and I” and be uplifted and entertained, all at the same time.
Tickets for “The King and I” are available in person at the Old National Centre Ticket Office, online at BroadwayinIndianapolis.com, or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. The performance schedule is Wednesday and Thursday evening at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00p.m., and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.