Is a Puzzlement | “The King and I” (National Tour) @ Pantages

The King and I (Pantages)I guess the first question is: “Why?”.

After all, I’m on record as saying that The King and I is not my favorite Rogers and Hammerstein show. I’d also seen a production somewhat recently: in 2008 at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). So why see The King and I again.

Well, first and foremost, I wanted to see Hamilton, and to ensure that happened, I got a Pantages subscription. But I didn’t even consider passing on the tickets (as I did for The Book of Morman), so, again, why? The answer is that I had seen the snippets of this Lincoln Center Theatre (FB) revival, and I wanted to see if the changes were sufficient to make me like the musical again.

We saw the show last night, and I have both good news and bad news to report. The production and the performance made this an extremely enjoyable King and I. However, the book itself is becoming increasingly problematic as my consciousness has been raised about cultural sensitivity. Can performance outweigh dated books? Should revivals tamper with successful originals to address book problems that weren’t there when the authors did the original?  What should we do about musicals and plays with books that reflects attitudes counter to what is acceptable today?

As I wrote back in 2008, I’m sure we are all familiar with “The King and I”. It was the 5th Rogers and Hammerstein musical, coming out in 1951,  two years after the successful “South Pacific”. It was based on a 1994 book. After “The King and I”, R&H would have a string of unsuccessful or less successful musicals (“Me and Juliet, “Pipe Dream”, “Flower Drum Song”) until their final paydirt, “The Sound of Music”.

As for the show’s plot. Many should know it from the beloved movie version. The R&H Theatricals site describes it thusly: “It is 1862 in Siam when an English widow, Anna Leonowens, and her young son arrive at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, having been summoned by the King to serve as tutor to his many children and wives. The King is largely considered to be a barbarian by those in the West, and he seeks Anna’s assistance in changing his image, if not his ways. With both keeping a firm grip on their respective traditions and values, Anna and the King grow to understand and, eventually, respect one another, in a truly unique love story. Along with the dazzling score, the incomparable Jerome Robbins ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” is one of the all-time marvels of the musical stage.”

Lincoln Center did what they could. A big problem with The King and I has often been one of casting. For a musical about Siam (now Thailand), it has often been cast with predominately Caucasian actors. In particular, Yul Brynner, the model of the King for most people, was a Russian-born Swiss-American actor. But today’s hallmark is diversity and authenticity, and as this production’s King, Jose Llana (FB), noted in Episode 84 of the Theater People podcast, it is vital to cast Asian roles with Asian actors. This production, for the most part, did that. I think I noted one non-Asian ensemble member — otherwise, all the Asian leads and ensemble members were Asian.  However, as my wife noted, previous few of them were actually Thai.  I had made an similar comment back in 2015 when writing up the Pasadena Playhouse’s Waterfall, where I wrote: “This leads to the next casting complaint: Casting directors that seem to think that all Asians look alike. For those who know, there are distinct differences between the various Asian ethnicities, and the Asian casting here was a mix of Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and probably some I couldn’t distinguish. I find this demonstrates a commentary on the acting pool: it indicates there are insufficient actors of a particular group to properly staff the show. This is something the theatre community needs to combat: we need to encourage more diversity in the acting pool (and diverse stories to employ them). ” We’re moving in the right direction, but we’ll be better when a show such as this can have its Siamese characters cast by predominately Thai actors. That will only happen when diversity is a hallmark in all shows; when there are sufficient roles to make acting a profession for a wide variety of ethnic actors. Reading the credits, we’re not there yet.

Another plus that Lincoln Center did was to increase the effort to make the dancing and movement more authentically Thai, as opposed to a more stereotypical portrayal. At least the movement seemed more Thai to this non-Thai audience member. It could probably have been stronger with a Thai choreographer, which Christopher Gattelli (FB) is clearly not (and which Jerome Robbins, born Jerome Wilson Rabinowitz, was clearly not). No knocks on Gattelli or Robbins for their work, which was beautiful Thai-like dancing for a very dance heavy show. But was the research and dramaturgy done to ensure it was an authentic form? That I can’t answer, only that it looked like that Thai-like dance I had seen in Waterfall.

But where this all fell down is the datedness of the Oscar Hammerstein II‘s book (based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon). Hammerstein’s writing reflected the 1950’s attitude towards Asians, with pidgin English and mispronunciations (just think of the character Bloody Mary in South Pacific or many of the characters in Flower Drum Song), and an implicit attitude that the Western way is superior. Although there is some commentary to that effect in the show (think of the song “Western People Funny”), the notion is still that the Western way is best. That wasn’t a problem in the 1950s and 1960s, but it is increasingly jarring today. Alas, there’s not much that can be done about it: The King and I is such a beloved show that the R&H Organization would never permit adjusting those attitudes; it will remain — just like the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside — a show whose dated notions ruffles the feathers of the sensitive today (although it may have sounded perfectly right in the context of its original time). This is an increasing problem for many musicals of the 1960s and early: attitudes and portrayals acceptable then are less acceptable now.

Setting that all aside, and looking at the show as the comfortable memory that it is, this production team did a reasonably good job — and the cast and director did an excellent job. The actors certainly brought a sparkle and vitality to the portrayals that made this production eminently watchable; there was a clear chemistry and playfulness there that was transmitted to the audience. Director Bartlett Sher (FB) is to be commended for the little things he either brought out or encouraged — this was just a fun production.

Nowhere was this seen better than in the leads: Laura Michelle Kelly (FB) and Jose Llana (FB). I’ve seen so many stiff Annas, but Kelly brought a sense of joy and delight to the role, and a look that captured the vulnerability beneath the facade as well. Llana’s King was similarly personified. Not just a stiff authoritarian figure, he was able to bring a humanity and personality to the role that was transmitted throughout the auditorium, a sense that can be seen in the bottommost image I found for the show graphic. Both sang wonderfully — strong, clear, and yet with fun in their voice. Delights for the ears and eyes.

The palace leads, Joan Almedilla (FB) as Lady Thiang and Brian Rivera (FB) as the Kralahome, were less playful (as befits their role in the story), but still fun to watch. Almedilla, in particular, had a lovely singing voice.

The “young lovers” required for the secondary subplot, Manna Nichols (FB) as Tuptim and Kavin Panmeechao (FB) as Lun Tha, were a lovely couple. Panmeechao’s role is not written to provide much character, let alone character development, but he gave it his all and had a great singing voice. Nichols’ role had much more character, and she too brought a playfulness to that character that she expressed whenver she good. Yet another lovely voice (this is one show where the women’s songs — particularly those for more traditional vocal ranges — shine) who was a joy to watch.

The last named pair of interest were the eldest children in each family: Graham Montgomery (FB) as Louis Leonowens and Anthony Chan (FB) as Prince Chulalongkorn. These are much smaller roles, but the two had a great interaction in the reprise of “A Puzzlement”, and Chan was particularly strong in the final scene.

Baylen Thomas (FB) portrayed the small role of Captain Orton / Sir Edward Ramsey.

Turning to the ensemble. The Ensemblist podcast (FB) this year (i.e., “season two”) has traced the evolving role of the ensemble from the early days of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing to this year’s Hamilton. That evolution can be clearly seen here — unlike last week where the ensemble was a collection of smaller individually named roles and characters, this was was clearly in the 1950s with the ensemble of unnamed interchangeable actors who were predominately in unnamed individuated roles. As such, although the ensemble at times brought some clear fun to the roles (I was thinking in particular of the various children, and the playfulness of some of the wives during the school scene), the power of the ensemble was more in the group singing and dance movements. The adult male ensemble, who portrayed unnamed Guards, Monks, and townspeople, consisted of Andrew Cheng (FB) [Ballet – Guard], Daniel J. Edwards (FB) [Ballet – Propman] , Darren Lee (FB) [Phra Alack, Ballet – Propman], Michael Lomeka (FB) [Ballet – Guard], Nobutaka Mochimaru (FB) [Ballet – Angel/George], Rommel Pierre O’Choa (FB) [Ballet – Simon of Legree], Sam Simahk (FB) [Ballet – Propman], and Jeoffrey Watson (FB) [Ballet – Guard, Royal Court Dancer]. The adult female ensemble,  who portrayed unnamed Royal Wives and Townspeople, consisted of Amaya Braganza [Ballet – Uncle Thomas], Lamae Caparas (FB) [Ballet – Eliza], Michelle Liu Coughlin (FB) [Ballet – Royal Singer], Nicole Ferguson (FB) [Ballet – Royal Singer], Marie Gutierrez (FB) [Ballet – Dog], Mindy Lai (FB) [Fan Dancer, Ballet – Dog], Q Lim (FB) [Ballet – Royal Singer], Stephanie Lo (FB) [Royal Court Dancer, Ballet – Dog], Yuki Ozeki (FB) [Fan Dancer, Ballet – Topsy], and Michiko Takemasa (FB) [Ballet – Little Eva]. The ensemble of Royal Children consisted of Jaden D. Amistad, Kayla Paige Amistad, Adriana Braganza, Amaya Braganza, Rylie Sickles [Princess Ying Yaowalak], Noah Toledo, and CJ Uy. Heather Botts (FB), Tony Marin (FB), Marcus Shane (FB), Rhyees Stump and Kelli Youngman (FB) were the swings. I’m not listing whom was understudying whom — that’s a long list.

As noted earlier, choreography was by Christopher Gattelli (FB), based on the original cheorgraphy by Jerome Robbins. Greg Zane (FB) was the associate choreographer. Yuki Ozeki (FB) was the Dance Captain, assisted by Kelli Youngman (FB). Andrew Cheng (FB) was the Fight Captain.

The music (written by Richard Rodgers, and orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett) was under the music supervision of Ted Sperling (FB). David Lai (FB) was the Music Coordinator, and Gerald Steichen (FB) was the conductor. The orchestra consisted of Tim Laciano/FB [Associate Conductor / Synchesizer], Chiho Saegusa [Acoustic Bass]; Mark O’Kain (FB) [Drums / Percussion]; Kathleen Robertson (FB) [Violin], Grace Oh (FB) [Concertmaster], Jody Rubin (FB) [Viola], Paula Fehrenbach (FB) [Cello]; Steve Kujala (FB) [Flute / Piccolo]; John Yoakum (FB) [Oboe / English Horn]; Dick Mitchell [Clarinet]; Bill Wood (FB) [Bassoon]; Steve Becknell (FB) [French Horn]; Danielle Ondarza (FB) [French Horn]; Wayne Bergeron (FB) [Trumpet]; Andy Martin (FB) [Trombone]; Julie Berghofer (FB) [Harp]; David Witham (FB) [Keyboard Sub]; Brian Miller [Orchestra Contractor]. Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements by Trude Rittmann.

Finally, turning to the production and creative side: The set design by Michael Yeargan was generally good, but had one glaring tour problem: the moving on-stage pillars often obscured the view of the actors for those sitting on the side of the theater. It is as if the design was for a much narrower auditorium, and wasn’t taking tour auditoriums into account. There was also an archaic aspect: a curtain going back and forth to permit scene changes behind it. The costumes by Catherine Zuber worked well, although I cannot gauge their accuracy. Wig and hair design was by Tom Watson. The sound by Scott Lehrer was clear and clean, and the lighting by Donald Holder worked well to establish mood and focus attention. Other production credits: Sari Ketter (Associate Director), Kathy Fabian/Propstar (Props Supervisor), Telsey + Company (Casting), Paige Grant (Production Stage Manager), Colyn W. Fiendel (Stage Manager), Katie Stevens (Assistant Stage Manager), Steve Varon (Company Manager).

The King and I continues at the  Hollywood Pantages (FB) until January 21, 2017. Tickets are available through the Pantages website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

Pantages Customer Service Warning: Note: The Pantages theatre not only believes that theatre belongs on the stage, it belongs at the front door. They practice security theatre upon entering the theatre, where they do a bag check to make sure that, among other things, you are not bringing dinner leftovers into the theatre because — heaven forfend — I don’t know what. I do know that the Pantages has none of their own parking, and they encourage patrons (especially subscribers) to take Metro — making it impossible to return to one’s car to put away the leftovers. In contrast, theatres such as the Music Center have a more civilized bag check, wherein you can check your bags and coats for storage. If the Pantages insists on Security Theatre bag check, they should provide lockers for non-explosive items so that patrons can check problematic items upon entry and retrieve them as they exit. That is the civilized way to do it — and theatre should be civilized, not the lowest common denominator (and I’ll note that none of the other theatres we attend does bag examination the way the Pantages does it, including movie theatres).

Pantages Season Ponderings: We recently received a note from the Pantages that said: “You know you are going to renew, why not make it easy and let us do the work for you? Sign up now for our annual, hassle-free season ticket auto-renew program by paying $100 DOWN TODAY and never worry about renewal deadlines again! Signing up to auto-renew automatically put you FIRST in line for Season Seat Upgrades.” The problem with this is that they haven’t announced the 2017-2018 season yet. So what might it be? Some tours are no-brainers, such as Something Rotten and Aladdin: The Musical (although some of these may go to the Ahmanson). But what else? It is unknown if Tuck Everlasting will tour, or if the latest Fiddler on the Roof revival will tour. It may be too soon for Natasha and the Great Pyramid or Evan Hansen to tour. There is a Honeymoon in Vegas tour; unclear if it will come to LA. The revival of Gigi will  be touring. On The Town will be touring. Other than that… I’m not sure.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB).

Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  This was likely our last live theatre for 2017. December concludes with an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

Turning to 2017, January starts with a Southern California Games Day, followed by Zanna Don’t at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) on January 16. We may get tickets to Claudio Quest at the Chance Theatre (FB) on January 28. February 2017 gets back to being busy: with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.