A good revival of a gold-standard musical is like a new romance, as if you've been reintroduced to someone you don't know well. But when the music starts, something draws you side to side. And next thing you know, that someone says, "Shall we dance?'
Why, yes. We should more than dance. On a bright cloud of music we should fly.
Lincoln Center's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" opened Tuesday for a weeklong run at the Orpheum Theatre. The touring show features the largest musical theater orchestra that a Hennepin theater audience has heard in some time. Able conductor Gerald Steichen travels with three musicians and hired 13 locals to join him in the pit. The sound wasn't 100 percent pristine, but it was a full cloud of music for the tour's excellent singers to fly on.
This is a show that reminds you of the good old-fashioned reason to go see musicals, which is to hear good actors sing such hummable, memorable tunes as "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers" and of course, "Shall We Dance." No doubt many in the Orpheum audience came as fans of the 1956 film that starred Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr as the 19th-century King of Siam and the Welsh schoolteacher he hires to educate his 67 children.
That's at the beginning of the show. A dozen more are born by the end.
The tricky thing about "The King and I" is that, despite presenting three female leads as uncommonly sturdy women for their time, it's still a show that trades on cutesy colonial Asian stereotypes. Director Bartlett Sher mitigates the pitfalls without sacrificing too much of the musical's heart. Tuptim (a radiant Manna Nichols) is stubbornly strong, while Jose Llana plays the king slightly tongue-in-cheek. (On opening night he had to pause while the audience applauded his timely zinger about "building a fence around Siam" to keep out the French.)
Sher, whose staging won the 2015 Tony, has become a genius at creating sumptuous tableaus on deceptively bare stages. Donald Holder designed the evocative lighting, and Michael Yeargan the sets, which are mostly just fancy moving pillars and ropes of faux orchids that dangle from the ceiling. The actors weave in and out of the scenery as they get to know each other and agree to dance.
As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly has less stage presence than her Broadway predecessors Kelli O'Hara (who also took home a Tony) and Marin Mazzie (who took on the role before the musical closed last June). The role can be played with a bit more spunk. Vocally, she's dwarfed a bit by the fuller voiced and nearly operatic Nichols.
But the real triumph of this production might be the "ballet" scene, when Nichols narrates "Small House of Uncle Thomas," Tuptim's adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist treatise.
There are many well-trained dancers of color on this tour, including alums of the Alvin Ailey School and Elisa Monte Dance. Done poorly, the scene comes off as hopelessly cheesy, or clumsy cultural appropriation. It's something of a miracle that the sincerity and stunning imagery has held up so well on tour. Add the full orchestra, and the "Praise to Buddha" finale is genuinely stirring, and a reminder that at its best, "The King and I" is a call for reasoned protest to demeaning traditions, and to flawed leaders of any land.