Lush and Exotic “The King and I” is a Treat for the Eyes and Ears at The Lied

By Scott Clark

“Every day, I do my best for one more day.” – The King

Based on a Tony Award-winning 2015 Broadway revival, the touring production of “The King and I” that opened Friday night at Lincoln’s Lied Center for the Performing Arts brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation for cast and crew by the end of the 3-hour production. And justifiably so.

“I am most certainly not your servant!” – Anna

The musical “The King and I” is based, for the most part, on the Margaret Landon novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), which itself was adapted from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, the British governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam during the 1860s. The music and lyrics are by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who were also inspired by a 1946 film made from Landon’s novel, and starring Irene Dunn and Rex Harrison. The musical takes several liberties from the real-life events surrounding Anna and King Mongkut, but remains surprisingly true to most of the important points in their lives.

“How do you explain, your majesty, that many men remain faithful to only one wife?” -Anna

“They are sick!” – The King

The King (Pedro Ka’awaloa) is a curious mix of traditionalist and forward-thinking. His goal, during a period of imperialist colonialism in the Far East, was to protect his kingdom of Siam and keep it independent from foreign interference. He saw that the best way to do that was to adopt as many Western (i.e. British) influences as possible, particularly in education, language, and reliance on scientific methods. At the same time, he was a traditional patriarch, in a society that embraced polygamy – at their first meeting, he introduces new British teacher Anna to several of his wives, and boasts of having 67 children.

“I shall never understand you – you or your King. I shall never understand him.” – Anna

Meanwhile, the King’s foil, and truly the star of this show, Anna Leonowens (Angela Baumgardner), is a strong-willed woman, who won’t back down from her convictions, and whose education of the King’s children (and wives) has the effect of introducing new ideas and philosophies that don’t necessarily match up with what the King would prefer.

Rodgers and Hammerstein wisely avoid having a true romance between these two lead characters, though by the time of the rousing “Shall We Dance” number in the second act, one wonders if that might develop. Instead, the supporting characters of Princess Tuptim and Lun Tha are able to render such traditional love songs as “We Kiss in a Shadow”. And the King’s primary wife, Lady Thiang, contributes a touching song in “Something Wonderful”. In fact, when you look at “The King and I” in its entirety, though it doesn’t on the surface appear to be a romance as much as it is a historical drama, it really does explore “love” in many ways – the love of a teacher for her pupils, the love of learning new things and embracing new ideas, the love of a King for his people, a forbidden love between young lovers, the bittersweet memories of a love lost to time, the love of one wife (among many) for a husband who she knows will never appreciate her, but whom she knows must succeed in order for her culture to survive, and the love of freedom to be whom one wishes to be.

The performances in this production are all excellent, with Baumgardner capably handling the demanding role of Anna with confidence and skill. I found her completely believable as the British teacher, and her singing voice is strong and clear. She was completely charming on such classics as “Getting to Know You” and “Hello Young Lovers”. Ka’awaloa imbues the King with bombast and humor, though I could never quite get Yul Brynner out of my mind, having put such a distinctive stamp on the character in both the Broadway and film versions of “The King and I”. Still, Ka’awaloa was quite strong on both “A Puzzlement”, and “Song of the King”. The two leads have marvelous chemistry together, and by the time they romp across the stage in “Shall We Dance”, they’ve created a relationship we truly care about.

It was a pair of the supporting actresses, however, who really impressed me the most. Paula Yeung as Tuptim has an almost operatic voice, and was shockingly good on “My Lord and Master”“We Kiss in Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed”. And Deanna Choi provided another strong voice as Lady Thiang on “Something Wonderful” and “Western People Funny”.

Overall production design for this touring show was impressive, with a set that moves between settings very easily, without sacrificing look or style. The costumes in this show are gorgeous! The ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” that provides a story-within-a-story in Act II contained skilled dancing and fascinating appearances. And the orchestra was marvelous, from the lush opening overture to the energetic waltz of “Shall We Dance”.

“Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” – The King

One complaint that has been made about “The King and I” during its various incarnations is that it appears to be promoting outdated cultural images and mores. Instead, I would say that the character of Anna is on the cutting edge of creating historic changes and you see the fruits of her efforts by the end of the show.

If you don’t have the opportunity to travel to New York City and see a big Broadway show there, then catching a touring company on the stage of The Lied here in Lincoln is the next best thing. And “The King and I” is a rousing, visually resplendent example of Broadway at its finest. You’ll leave the theater humming any of a half-dozen catchy and memorable tunes and marveling at Miss Baumgardner’s ability to wear 40-pound dresses for close to three hours on stage – not to mention all the costume changes she has to go through!

If you go: The Lied Center for the Performing Arts is located at 301 N. 12th St. in Lincoln, NE. “The King and I” is being performed only on Friday, February 1st and Saturday, February 2nd, 7:30 p.m. on both evenings. There is also a matinee at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. Get your tickets now online or by calling the box office at (402) 472-4747.

Scott Clark has worked in a variety of roles for the Lincoln City Libraries for nearly 40 years, where he regularly shares book, music and film reviews on their readers advisory website. He’s also reviewed books for the Lincoln Journal Star, and KFOR radio, and has shared his reviews of films and stage shows on his blog and Facebook feeds for many years. He’s a reader, writer, and sometimes actor, who loves to share his enthusiasms, in an effort to connect people with things they just might fall in love with!

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