Review: Lush look and sound give ‘The King and I’ a needed bump in touring version


The intimation of intimacy in the title of “The King and I” belies the sheer size of the sumptuous touring production that just opened at the San Diego Civic Theatre.

With its scads of cast members and a sublime 16-piece orchestra to boot, this road version of the 1951 Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is more like “The King and I and 50 of Our Closest Friends.”

It’s to the former San Diego theater-maker Bartlett Sher’s great credit that, in contrast to the original productions of this Southeast Asia-set story, he has cast actors of actual Asian heritage in the vast majority of those roles, both lead and ensemble.

And, as well, that he has found myriad ways to honor the beauty and complexity of Thai culture in this still somewhat culturally problematic saga of East meeting West — an effort reminiscent of the director’s earlier, similarly radiant resuscitation of another R&H favorite, “South Pacific.”

The show’s title, though, also gets at another aspect of intimacy that’s always been a bit of an oddity with “The King and I,” and seems heightened in this Broadway revival: The fact its central romance isn’t actually a romance.

The interplay between Jose Llana’s fierce and funny King of Siam and Elena Shaddow’s elegant but forthright British teacher Anna Leonowens crackles with passion and wit, but the tension only seems to take on a romantic edge in the two Broadway veterans’ charming late-in-the-show duet “Shall We Dance?”

A bit more of a spark (or hint of it) earlier on might make that fleeting connection seem less abrupt, even in this real-life-inspired piece that has always been about a love that can’t be expressed.

Fortunately, the production is so ravishing in so many other ways that you can forgive that puzzlement (to borrow one of the king’s favorite words) at its center.

Llana is a force of nature as the peacock-proud but permanently flustered 1860s-era king, who hires Anna as teacher to his 60-plus kids — yes, the man has a whole lot of wives — but quickly chafes at her insistence on a house outside the palace and her demand that he not treat her (or, for that matter, other women) as chattel.

The moment when Anna and her young son Louis (Ryan Stout) land by boat in Bangkok is a visual coup de théâtre that sets the stage for eye-popping moments to come, courtesy of Michael Yeargan’s soaring sets, Catherine Zuber’s richly conceived costumes and Donald Holder’s drama-dense lighting.

And Shaddow sings soulfully on the favorites “Getting to Know You” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” backed by conductor Tim Laciano’s orchestra — one of the most ear-pleasing I’ve heard in a Civic touring show.

The production’s most potent voice, though, belongs to Q Lim, who somehow pairs a delicate vibrato with power to reach the back of the house on “My Lord and Master” and others.

There’s plenty of personality in supporting roles, including Charlie Oh as the excitable and ever-questioning heir apparent to the throne, Prince Chulalongkorn; Brian Rivera as the gruff but wise Kralahome; and Joan Almedilla, who unleashes stirring vocals as the King’s reserved but sympathetic “head wife,” Lady Thiang.

Christopher Gattelli’s choreography (based on the late Jerome Robbins’ original work) is particularly vivid on the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet — Tuptim’s pointed dramatic interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for a formal dinner honoring a visiting British diplomat.

It’s a moment both curious and entrancing — like much of the musical itself.

“Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through July 1.

Where: Broadway/San Diego at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown.

Tickets: About $22-$135

Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100


Twitter: @jimhebert