If you look up the definition of “musical theater,” chances are you’ll see the pictures of two men — composer Richard Rodgers and writer/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. In just the past few years, Austin has seen major touring productions of multiple Rodgers & Hammerstein works, including “The Sound of Music” and “Cinderella.” Now, Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts present another classic work from the pair, “The King and I,” playing through Dec. 17 at Bass Concert Hall.
Based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, “The King and I” follows English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens as she is brought to Siam in order to modernize the royal court by serving as teacher and tutor to the King’s many wives and children. In the process, she teaches him about the modern world as well, and learns quite a few things herself. As the lyrics to one the show’s most famous numbers, “Getting to Know You,” remind us, “It’s a very ancient saying, but a true and honest thought, that if you become a teacher by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
This touring production of “The King and I” originated at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ken Watanabe as the King. Because of his two powerhouse leads, Sher created a somewhat understated production that focused on character study rather than a lot of style over substance. Fortunately, the leads of the touring production are strong enough to pull it off as well as the original cast members did.
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As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly is beautifully subtle and contained, in contrast to the rather delightfully outré performance of Jose Llana as the King. As made famous by Yul Brenner, the role of the King is often played as frighteningly and imposingly domineering, but Llana approaches the character with a charming, frequently undercut swagger. He is a roguish sort, rather than the more stolidly tragic figure created by Brenner. There is as much John Stamos in Llana’s performance as there is Brenner, which makes for a version of “The King and I” where the King is much more likable than usual. As such, the strange attraction that grows between Anna and the King is entirely due to character and thankfully loses some of the overtones of imperialism that frequently haunt the text.
Indeed, there are parts of “The King and I” that don’t age all that well. The way the story equates all that is Western with being modern and correct while all that is Eastern is either backwards or exotic is Orientalism of the most direct kind, as embodied by the ballet-within-a-play, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” That said, the ballet is extremely engaging, an explosion of color and kinetic energy that contrasts with the more contained numbers that precede it.
Although its politics may be dated, the universal truths at the core of the characters in “The King and I” remain true. Wisely, this production focuses much more heavily on those characters rather than on the politics, thereby creating a truly classic version of the musical that highlights the enduring strength of those masters of the stage, Rodgers & Hammerstein.
‘THE KING AND I’
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 12-16, 2 p.m. Dec. 16, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 17
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Information: 512-477-6060, broadwayinaustin.com