A Visual Stunner

A Visual Stunner

Traditional ‘King and I’ still richly beautiful, beautifully moving

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"The Kind and I."

“The Kind and I.”

If you’ve somehow never seen an adaptation of “The King and I” — most famously, the 1956 musical version with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, but also 1946’s “Anna and the King of Siam,” 1999’s animated musical “The King and I,”  Jodie Foster’s ‘99 live action “Anna and the King,” or, of course, the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage version — the abbreviated story is as follows:

In the 1860s, British teacher Anna Leonowens is hired by the king of Siam (now Thailand) to teach his children and his wives in the “scientific ways” of the West. Anna’s modern ideas of equality between men and women and her strong will puzzle, frustrate and intrigue the king. Though he wishes to modernize his country, his traditional views and stubbornness see the two often at odds. Through her years there, Anna falls in love with the children, the country and perhaps even the king.

I think a good way to consider the show that opened at the Walton Arts Center on Tuesday is to know it is traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein with its elegance and sweeping score. The thing is, “The King and I” is traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein in a time when — in competing with special effects, over-the-top dance numbers and ever-innovative music — “traditional” is difficult.

That being said, if, like me, your grandmother introduced you to Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner waltzing around the palace — Kerr’s iconic dress swirling behind her — when you were younger, you might be able to approach the show with a little more appreciation, awe and even nostalgia than perhaps someone unfamiliar with the story.

I was surrounded by mixed feelings upon leaving Baum Walker Hall on Tuesday night. I think some, like me, had fond memories of the music and the story from their childhood and were excited to see both come alive on stage. However, at least one woman who falls into that category also shared with me which scenes in the movie she “always fast-forwards through.” One of those scenes is the memorable “Small House of Uncle Thomas” — a ballet adaptation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” performed for the king by his wives and children. While that scene was skippable for my friend, another woman expressed admiration and interest at seeing the story told through the cultural lens of the Siamese people. What this says to me is that, as with much art, what speaks to and moves a viewer often varies from person to person.

Surely everyone in the audience could agree, though, on the unquestionably breathtaking costumes and sets. At the first moment the curtain opens, an impressive boat drifts into the “harbor” on stage, with Anna and her son Louis at the bow as they take in the sight of Bangkok. Most of the other scenes take place throughout the palace and admittedly, don’t make quite the impact as that boat in the beginning, but I still found myself willingly transported from set to set as beautiful pieces floated down from the ceiling or drifted on and off stage to change the setting.

The juxtaposition of Anna’s traditional English attire of hoop skirts and corsets next to the beading, colors and details of the Siamese people’s costumes is a visual delight. Of course Anna’s recognizable lavender dress during “Shall We Dance” is stunning, but the richness and texture of the entire company’s wardrobe is enchanting, as well.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna certainly earned her role with her divine vocals and charm, but I have to say Jose Llana as the king delivers my favorite performance of the show. He nails the humor, but also does justice to the character’s complexities and mortal struggles.

There are six more chances to experience this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at the Walton Arts Center through Sunday.


‘The King and I’

WHEN — 1:30 & 7 p.m. today; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 & 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — $43 & up

INFO — 443-5600

Categories: Legacy Archive