Review: The King and I (Broadway in Chicago)

| June 29, 2017

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly star as The King and Anna in The King and I, Broadway Chicago             


The King and I
By Richard Rodgers (music),
  Oscar Hammerstein II (lyrics, co-author)   
at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map)
thru July 9  |  tix: $20-$90  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


Visually sumptuous, sonically gorgeous


The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, Broadway Chicago

Broadway in Chicago presents
The King and I

Review by Catey Sullivan

Visually sumptuous and sonically gorgeous, the opulent national tour of The King and I is a throwback to the golden era of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The show debuted in 1951, within a ten-year span that also saw R & H’s Oklahoma, Carousel, State Fair and South Pacific take Broadway by storm.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana star as Anna and The King in The King and I, Broadway ChicagoSet in 1860, The King and I follows the story of a British teacher charged with bringing Western ways to Siam (now Thailand). As Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) and the King (Jose Llana) challenge each other intellectually, culturally and just a tad romantically, they make their way through a host of iconic show-tunes including “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance” and “Getting to Know You.”

Director Bartlett Sher has essentially replicated the Tony-winning revival that premiered in New York in 2015. As on the east coast, the show doesn’t stint in illuminating the culture of 19th century Siam. From the set deign to the wig design to the choreography, The King and I offers a glittering rendition of far-eastern splendor. Nobody – thank Buddha – is in yellowface here.

The massive scale of the production design is matched by the nearly 40-member ensemble. It’s tough to imagine a more capable group. Kelly’s Anna has the clarion soprano of an angel and the uncompromising grit of a feminist. As the King, Llana is a remarkable study in contrasts: He captures the arrogance of an absolute monarch worshiped as a god and the deep-seated uncertainty of a human fully aware that there are many things he does not know.

The supporting players are similarly powerful. As Tuptim, Manna Nichols is charged with portraying a Burmese sex slave – a young woman given as a gift to the King of Siam to do with as he pleases. Nichols finds both audacity and power in the role, and gives Tuptim a ferocious dignity that’s sorely lacking in many a King and I production. Joan Almedilla gives “first wife” Lady Thiang a similar steel, and makes it readily apparent that Lady Thaing is – first and foremost – deeply, truly in love with the King.

The gaggle of royal children are impossibly cute, while heir-to-throne Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chan) is appropriately precocious.

Jose Llana stars as The King in The King and I, Broadway in Chicago Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao star in The King and I, Broadway in ChicagoLaura Michelle Kelly stars as Anna in The King and I, Broadway Chicago

The cast is surrounded by the work of truly great designers. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli makes the children’s presentation to Anna an adorable highlight of the first act. He does similarly wonderful work with the intricate fan dancers of the royal court and, especially, in the second act ballet based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” That last makes use of masks, puppets and rivers of silk to create an absolute showstopper.

Costume designer Catherine Zuber has created a grand spectacle of museum-worthy garments, Anna’s massive (and intricately detailed) hoop skirts clashing beautifully with the jewel-toned column dresses of the Siamese women. Set designer Michael Yeargan’s onstage world is packed with references to traditional Thai architecture and ornamentation, from the elaborately carved spectacle of the Royal barges to the giant golden Buddhas and elegant pagodas that define the landscape. The opening scene is a jaw-dropper: A (nearly) full-sized steamer glides into dock, Anna’s son Louis (Graham Montgomery) on the bow, scanning the horizon.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, Broadway in ChicagoJoan Almedilla stars as as Lady Thiang in The King and I, Broadway in Chicago Laura Michelle Kelly stars as Anna in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and ILaura Michelle Kelly stars as Anna in The King and I, Broadway in Chicago

In all, Sher has made a King and I that’s as good as it could possibly be. For all its magnificence, however, there are significant problems built into the story of Anna and the King. Visit Thailand today, and you’ll find Anna Leonowens is not exactly revered – a fact that speaks to the issues that come with The King and I. The premise of the entire story rests on the notion that the Siamese can thrive in the wider world only if they adapt to the ways of Western civilization.

The King has brought Anna to his court in order to teach his wives and children western ways. English reading, writing and arithmetic are more valuable to young Siamese children than lessons about their own native writers and artists. Unwieldy hoop skirts layered with endless petticoats are preferable to the sleek traditional Siamese clothing (Which is especially ridiculous when you consider the temperature in Thailand hovers above 90 for much of the year). English manners are preferable. And when an Englishman deems the King “barbaric,” the. King and Anna decide the best way to disprove the slight is to cleanse court of its ethnic heritage and throw a banquet in the fashion of European gentry.

Beyond all that, The King and I is diminished by a few gaping plot holes. The unfortunate Tuptim is hauled offstage under heavy guard, never to be seen again and presumably imprisoned. Her lover’s fate is similarly brutal and murky.

None of these objections to The King and I were so much as an inkling within the show premiered roughly 56 years ago. Now they’re tough to overlook, even in an production as wonderful as this one.

Rating: ★★★½

The King and I continues through July 9th at Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph (map).  Tickets are $20-$90, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours 50 minutes, includes an intermission)

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery star in The King and I, Broadway ChicagoMichiko Takemasa stars as Little Eva in The King and I, Broadway in Chicago

Photos by Matthew Murphy 




Laura Michelle Kelly (Anna Leonowens), Jose Llana (King of Siam), Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang), Manna Nichols (Tuptim), Kevin Panmeechao (Lun Tha), Anthony Chan (Prince Chulalongkorn), Graham Montgomery (Louis Leonowens), Brian Rivera (Kralahome), Baylee Thomas (Captain Orton, Sir Edward Ramsey), Heather Botts (understudy, Anna), Jaden D. Amistad, Kayla Paige. Amistad, Adrianna Braganza, Andrew Chang, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Daniel J. Edwards, Nicole Ferguson, Marie Gutierrez, Q Liam, Michael Lomeka, Marcus Shane, Sam Simahk, Noah Toledo, CJ Uy (ensemble), Amaya Braganza (Uncle Thomas, Fan Dancer, ensemble), Lamar Caparas (Elizabeth ensemble), Darren Lee (Phra, Alack, ensemble), Stephanie Lo (Royal Court Dancer, ensemble), Mindy Lai (fan dancer, ensemble), Andrew Chan (Prince Chulalongkorn), Nobutaka Mochimaru (Angel, George, ensemble), Rommel Pierre O’Choa (Simon of Lehrer, ensemble), Yukon Ozeki (Topsy, Fan Dancer, ensemble, dance captain), Rylie Sickles (Princess Ying Yaowalak, ensemble), Rhyees Stump (swing), Michigan Takemasa (Little Eva, ensemble), Jeffrey Watson (Royal Court Dancer, ensemble), Kelli Youngman (assistant dance captain, swing.)

behind the scenes

Bartlett Sher (director), Ted Sperling (music director), Michael Yeargan (set design), Catherine Zuber (costume design), Donald Holder (lighting design), Scott Lehrer (sound design), Telsey + Company, Abbie Brady-Dalton (casting), Christopher Gattelli (choreography), Jerome Robbins (original choreography), Tom Watson (wig and hair design), Greg Zane (assistant choreographer), Sari Ketter (associate director), Kathy Fabian, Propstar (props supervisor), Robert Russell Bennet (orchestrations), Trude Rittmann (dance and incidental music arrangements), Seth Wenig (executive producer), David Lai (music coordinator), Gerald Steichen (music conductor), Paige Grant (production stage manager), Colyn W. Fiendel (stage manager), Katie Stevens (assistant stage manager), Steve Varon (company manager), Matthew Murphy (photos)

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly star as The King and Anna in The King and I, Broadway in ChicagoJose Llana stars as The King in The King and I, Broadway Chicago


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Catey Sullivan, Musical, National Tours, Oriental Theatre (Ford), Rodgers & Hammerstein, Video, YouTube

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