With admired productions of South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof behind him and My Fair Lady on his plate for this Broadway season, director Bartlett Sher is getting an acclaimed reputation for his affectionate, reverential musical revivals. That rep can only be enhanced by his take on Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The King and I, now playing at the Kravis Center through Sunday.
With a nearly invisible hand, Sher delivers the 1951 musical we probably are already familiar with in some form with an emphasis on the dramatic tale of East-West culture clash and the plight of women in the mid-19th century. All of that was always lurking in Hammerstein’s adaptation of the Margaret Landon novel, Anna and the King of Siam, though for years it was overshadowed by the star power of Yul Brynner, the show’s original King Mongkut.
Jose Llana (The King) and Heather Botts (I, a/k/a Anna Loenowens) may not be box office names, but they are assured musical theater performers and, perhaps more importantly, skilled stage actors. She bristles with intelligence and pre-feminist stubbornness, while he has the royal swagger and bluster that barely hides a puzzlement over how to rule his nation and drag it into the modern world.
Together they have a palpable sexual tension, which briefly bubbles to the surface in their climactic polka (“Shall We Dance?”). Their confrontations throughout the show can be deadly serious or wryly amusing, as when the king keeps insisting that his head be higher than all others around him.
None of Sher’s emphasis on the musical’s underlying drama takes away from the beauty of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best scores. Many of the songs have become timeless hits, like “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You,” and that’s just from the first act. In addition to the two leads, the score is delivered with soaring power by Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao as the king’s present from the Burmese monarch and her furtive lover.
Choreographer Christopher Gattelli (Newsies) sticks closely to the original Jerome Robbins dances, including the masterful simplicity of the second act “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. Nor does he try to improve on the sheer alchemy of that “Shall We Dance?” polka or the adorable “March of the Siamese Children.”
The King and I is a designer’s dream show and Sher’s usual collaborators provide sumputous visuals. Michael Yeargan’s sets are dominated by silky, rich curtains and mobile pillars, while Catherine Zuber’s costumes have a storybook period feel, notably the hoop skirts of Anna and the king’s concubines.
If you have never seen The King and I before, it is a musical that is worth getting to know now with Sher’s Lincoln Center production. If you seen it before, even several times, you know it is a classic that is always worth another look.
THE KING AND I, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall. 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. $33-$99. 561-832-7469.