“Shall we dance” at Starlight

The gorgeous production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic "The King and I," now playing at Starlight Theatre, is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

This production of “The King and I” is a national tour that in its New York residency at Lincoln Center Theater won four 2015 Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical; it was mounted by the same creators who produced recent Broadway productions of South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza, and the current revival of My Fair Lady; and it features the wondrous, classic R&H tunes “A Puzzlement,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Shall We Dance,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” and “Something Wonderful.”

But just like a banquet that – even though it may be delicious – goes on for too long and with too many courses, The King and I, as masterly and beautiful as it is, seemed long and drawn out to me this evening. I suspect it may be somewhat a case of seen-it-one-too-many-times syndrome: I think this is the fourth time I’ve seen the show at Starlight alone. Because I must say, the rest of the audience seemed to greatly enjoy themselves. And the show’s highlights do remain true highlights: “Shall We Dance” and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” are every bit as wonderful as you remember them to be.

The show begins with an Overture that nicely brings back all the melodies. In this modern age, Overtures can be either a blessing or a curse, but here it serves as a welcome reminder, like a greeting from old, old friends. As the Orchestra plays, a giant maroon curtain with shiny gold accents billows, giving a hint of the stylishness that will follow.

Soon, the curtain is whisked away as a massive, actual ship (!) sails onstage in a cushion of fog. This is the first of a number of pleasingly theatrical scenery mechanics that includes a giant statue of Buddha that towers over the stage, plus eight maroon/shiny gold (again) three-story-tall columns. The eight columns move in, out and around the stage, to create playing areas for the actors; I caught myself watching them, in wonderment – they fly in, sometimes in slow motion and even at an angle, and float into position – prompting genuine “how did they DO that?!?” moments. Indeed, throughout the evening, both the large-scale set pieces and even the smaller scenes and their period furniture are all quite impressive and beautiful. The costumes are also very well done, colorful and stylish, and it was quite fun to watch Elena Shaddow as Anna and Jose Llana as The King deftly respectively maneuver their massive hoop skirts and capes with amusing flourishes.

As for matters other than the physical production, the script seems to be the Broadway original from 1951, adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II from the 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon. It is the story of a British widow who has come to Siam to teach a palace full of royal children how to speak English and learn the ways of the West. Anna’s duties and her pursuit of them, though they were assigned by The King himself, cause clashes between the two, as they each try to come to terms with the modern world outside the country and the cultural mores of Siam that have been in place for centuries. The storyline isn’t merely one telling of cultural and political change though; it is the turbulent, “opposites attract” relationship between the King and Anna that drives The King and I, along with the playing out of several other love stories that give the play emotional weight.

Elena Shaddow made a wonderful Anna, with a lovely singing voice, and a really nice feel for how to play that fine line between the role’s many comic elements AND the moments of conflict and drama where passion or pathos are required.

Jose Llana has been playing The King for quite a while – he made his Broadway debut 20 years ago in a previous revival of The King and I – and he comes to the national tour directly from the 2015 Broadway production. His performance is a lot of “fun;” he does very nicely with the songs and dances, and has a flair for the comic and “oversize” moments of The King. That said… I’ve seen several other actors perform this role over the years, and I’m afraid I have to say that I wish his performance had more gravitas, something that is necessary in order to give the show’s dénouement the emotional punch it needs. (BTW, when I say “others,” I do not merely mean “the actor who need not be named.” Nudge, wink.)

In the other leading roles, both Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang and Q Lim as Tuptim have lovely singing voices and bring a very nice emotional heft to their scenes that was quite heartfelt and effective.

Starlight Theatre
The King and I
Runs June 12-17, 2018 (Reviewed Tuesday, June 12)
Starlight Theatre
4600 Starlight Rd., Kansas City, MO
For tickets call 816-363-7827 or visit https://tickets.kcstarlight.com
For more information about the production, visit www.thekinganditour.com

Cover photo: Jose Llana (The King) and Elena Shaddow (Anna) perform the iconic dance number from “The King and I.”