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Broadway in Cincinnati Stages “The King and I” with Pomp and Spectacle

Review by Ted Rice of The King and I: Broadway in Cincinnati

When the curtain opened last night at the Aronoff Theater, theater-goers were transported into Siam in 1862 via a large wooden ship that sailed downstage towards the awestruck audience. Combined with a radiant sunset that painted the sky and the opening Eastern influenced overture, one could almost smell the spices of a Bangkok bizarre located just off stage.

Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I arrived in Cincinnati for sixteen performances that will run through April 22nd. Following four Tony Awards in 2015 including Best Musical Revival, the Lincoln Center Theater’s production has been highly anticipated and did not disappoint the packed opening night house.

​The story follows schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow), who is brought to Bangkok to educate the multitudinous children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). Anna and her son have been promised a lovely home separate from the palace, but upon arrival they have been told that they will be required to reside in the palace. Soon after a slave named Tuptim (Q Lim) also arrives at the palace as a gift for the King. She is secretly in love with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), a scholar who is studying the design of the temple.

The children and wives of the King are enthralled by their new tutor, but the King finds himself at odds with Anna over her lessons about life outside of Siam and her strong-willed nature that is antithetical to the other women in his life. This is a common struggle throughout the musical as the King finds difficulty in welcoming western culture and hanging on to the culture and society that has given him absolute control and riches.

In Act Two a play-within-a-play written by Tuptim and based upon Uncle Tom’s Cabin gives the audience a chance to see the two cultures colliding on stage in the form of a narrated ballet. The strong symbolism of Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel being performed for the King is a powerful respite from the struggles of palace-life, but its true meaning isn’t lost on anyone. The balancing act of western and eastern cultures is fully on display as the classic, restrained beauty of Catherine Zuber’s costume design and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography take center stage.

First performed on Broadway in 1951, The King and I bears very little resemblance to today’s fast paced musicals such as Dear Evan Hanson and Hamilton. The transitions are slow, the songs favor ballads that showcase the singers’ gorgeous voices, and there are definitely scenes that could be trimmed to streamline the production, but the show is a revival. It not only takes the audience to 19th century Siam, but it transports the audience to the mid-20th century Golden Age of musical theater.  As most current musical theater offerings tend to be Jukebox musicals and shows based on popular movies, it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to witness this classic production that is unwavering in its tradition.  A powerful story, brilliant performances by Broadway veterans, and classic Rogers and Hammerstein songs should pack the Aronoff every performance of its Cincinnati run.