Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas, and Graham Montgomery in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
It was a full house at the opening of the Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I tour on Tuesday night. The Orpheum Theatre’s seats were packed with an unusually broad balance of ages, waiting to see this sumptuous staging of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic. It was soon clear that the audience was far from disappointed.
One of the interesting things that happens when normally separate audiences mix is that what one group assumes to be an audience convention breaks down – as with the outpouring of applause when Laura Michelle Kelly (as Anna) first took the stage. There was much more applause to be had throughout the night, especially with musical numbers like “Getting to Know You” and “Something Wonderful.” There’s also a lot of dancing with spirited choreography by Christopher Gattelli to entertain, with a particular crossover interest in “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.”
Another thing that this production has in spades are cute kids and amusing little moments. Kelly’s chemistry with Jose Llana (as the King of Siam; Llana also played the role at Lincoln Center) is excellent and the large group of youngsters that make up Anna’s classroom is frequently charming and endearing. Kelly is musically engaging and always lovely to hear, as is Joan Almedilla (as Lady Tiang). The general ensemble is strong, with too many distinct characters to name.
For a production that is extremely lush visually, the pit ensemble was surprisingly small and thin. Richard Rodgers’ score calls for lush orchestration, especially to bring out emotion while accompanying some of the simpler melodies; the barebones strings section lost much of that effect. That’s something that no amount of added reverb or amplification will cover, especially in a large hall. This has more than casual impact: songs like “We Kiss in Shadow” and “Shall We Dance” are designed to be carried by the score and its orchestration. While “Shall We Dance” had a very eye-catching ball gown and lively dancing to glue one’s eyes, with a larger orchestra the moment would have been transcendent.
It is the fashion in Broadway tours today to progressively strip away the pit orchestration and chorus, especially if a tour continues for a long time. This is a disservice to the audience – the number of instruments and voices is an integral part of the experience, and one of the reasons that people purchase tickets for these large national tours. On Tuesday night, all of the other ingredients were there in “Shall We Dance”: engaging performances by Kelly and Llana, Gattelli’s choreography after Jerome Robbins, splendid costumes by Catherine Zuber, and sterling direction by Bartlett Sher. The result is a King & I that had a lot of oomph, but with a little more musical boost could have taken your breath away every other song. It was still a great time, but not the tell-your-children-splendid that it could have been.
The national tour of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I plays through Mar. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.