Review: ‘The King and I’ Revival Shifts Focus From Rehashed Love Story to Humanist One

By Kim Jackson

Everyone remembers their first exposure to musicals. Mine was The King and I, not a live production but the movie version with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr. Many of the iconic tunes stuck in my head, including Getting to Know You, Whistle a Happy Tune, Hello Young Lovers, and of course, my favorite, Shall We Dance. So, let’s just say I was excited about another visit to the kingdom of Siam.

The tale of Anna Leonowens, the British widow who travels to Bangkok in 1862 to teach the favorite wives and offspring of King Mongkut is a familiar one. And from the scenery and costumes to Rodger and Hammerstein’s classic score, the national tour of The King and I, based on the 2015 Lincoln Center Theatre revival, revels in the grandeur audiences have come to expect from this beloved show.

Angela Baumgardner embodies her Anna with both the confidence and compassion of a woman who has solely had to provide for herself and her son. Her renditions of Whistle a Happy Tune that open and close the show evoke the emotional range of someone who embraces the challenges of change. When she sings of love, her deep passion is heartfelt and palpable.

That same feeling resonates in the performances of the other two lead female roles. As the head wife to the King, Lady Thiang has to navigate between the needs of her husband and an ever-changing world that challenges Siam’s outworn traditions. Deanna Choi positions this woman as someone who knows how to wield her power in order to achieve what is best for her son and her country. She knows that Anna paves the way to help the young Prince Chulalongkorn ready Siam for a modern world.

But probably the role most elevated in this revival was that of Tuptim, a young woman presented to the King as a gift from Burma. Pauline Yeung’s moving performance and crystal clear operatic voice consumed the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium opening night.  Her pitch-perfect renditions of My Lord and Master, the heart-breaking love song We Kiss in a Shadow, and the beautiful I Have Dreamed were most riveting. Her unhappiness is given full vent during the show’s ballet sequence The Small House of Uncle Thomas, during which she makes the brave decision to speak out against the King. This scene was truly one of the highlights of the entire production.

It is during the second half of the show that the tension in the relationship between the King of Siam, played by Pedro Ka’awaloa, and Anna, comes to a head. Unfortunately, Ka’awaloa’s mic seemed to be off at the beginning of the first act on opening night, so it seemed as if he didn’t truly take command of this power role until much later in the show. Nevertheless, this King is charismatic, fiery at times, and even vulnerable in the face of a kingdom that is slowly slipping away.

The King’s right-hand man, Kralahome, also understands inevitable change. Bern Tan grounds his character with the practical wisdom of someone who knows how to manipulate events behind-the-scenes to protect his King. His scenes with Anna are notable for the things that aren’t spoken more so than for the words that are.

While previous versions of this story emphasized the fictitious romantic relationship between King Mongkut and Anna, this revival shifts the focus to cultural tensions and the clash between traditional values and change, a fitting and satisfying update for today’s audiences.

The King and I runs through Sunday at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. For more information visit: https://nctheatre.com/shows/king-and-i%20.

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