In 1862, as the Civil War raged across the United States, a British woman named Anna Leonowens was hired as the royal governess to the children of the King of Siam (now Thailand). Her memoir, The English Governess at the Siamese Court, was the basis of a hit novel called Anna and the King of Siam. That novel in turn became the musical The King and I, whose national tour opened Tuesday at the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga.
The King and I is one of the most-beloved musicals by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II, keeping company with works like Carousel, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific. The current national tour comes by way of Lincoln Center in New York and features a top-notch cast with stellar vocals, exciting dancing, and a gripping engagement with the musical’s themes of colonialism and cultural collisions.
One thing that can make or break a production of this musical is whether its leads can hold the audience’s attention through the extended, act-long arcs. Anna (Angela Baumgardner), the King (Pedro Ka’awaloa), and Lady Thaing (DeAnna Choi) are onstage for much of the show, and the occasional dance break or sojourn with star-crossed lovers Tuptim (Paulina Yeung) and Lun Tha (Dongwoo “DW” Kang) never gives them a break for long. With this tour, the principals not only capture your attention, but don’t let go until the show is finished. The Act I intermission passes quickly as you wait in eager anticipation of the second half.
A highlight of this revival is the choreography, which uses much of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography with additions by Christopher Gatelli. The pit orchestra is finely tuned and expertly shades the onstage action, with conductor David Aaron Brown leading them in splendid crescendos and spirited dance breaks. The music has you tapping your toe from the opening overture, and by the time “Shall we dance?” sweeps across the stage, you know that you’ll have the songs stuck in your head for days to come.
Some of the most notable musical moments in the show include Baumgartner’s performance of “Shall I tell you what I think of you?”, a piece delivered with a fun lilt and crack comic timing; DeAnna Choi’s gripping delivery of “Something Wonderful”, and Ka’awaloa’s deadpan performance of “A puzzlement”, which both amuses and impresses the seriousness of the colonialist backdrop that Siam faces. Mixed in are many delightful moments dominated by the young children in the cast, who bring an infectious energy and zest to numbers like “The March of Siamese Children” and “Getting to Know You”.
The King and I tour is a splendid romp that will make you yearn for more musicals of days gone by. Just don’t wait – this production closes Thursday.