Energetic, engaging, and entertaining from the overture through the reprise, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I opened Tuesday, November 13 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Jacksonville. Offering a riveting and visually enthralling adventure, The King and I triumphantly inspires and delights young and old alike. The show runs from November 13-18, 2018.
Based on the 1944 semi-biographical novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, The King and I is a familiar story that has appeared on the big screen numerous times over the decades. For many, the 1999 adaptation Anna and the King starring Jodie Foster and Yun-Fat Chow likely served as their first introduction to the tale of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam. Rodger & Hammerstein’s The King and I will be recognizable to film fans, though it presents the timeless tale in a powerful and unique manner only live theater can accomplish.
The year is 1862. Anna Leonowens (played by Angela Baumgardner) is a strong-willed British schoolteacher and a widow who comes to Bangkok at the request of the King of Siam (played by Pedro Ka ‘Awaloa) to educate his many children. She’s part of his bold plan to modernize his nation.
Read interview with Angela Baumgardner here: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The King & I’: A Treasured Heirloom Comes to Jacksonville Nov. 13-18
Anna finds herself in a world completely unlike her own in this East vs. West drama, yet she refuses to be intimidated by the king and his representatives. When her contract is violated, she does not relent in demanding rectification. The British schoolteacher quickly comes to adore the Siamese princes and princesses in her care. Yet cultural differences, the King’s ego-centric and macho personality, and the demeaning treatment of Siamese women prevent Anna from getting too comfortable.
Through her consistent kindness and perseverance, Anna and the King begin to respect and understand one another. Despite their differences, an unlikely friendship blooms. When she learns the British plan to take over Siam as a protectorate and that the King is portrayed as barbaric in the West, she’s outraged and helps him entertain the British envoy and prove to the world that the King, despite his flaws, is a leader deserving their respect. Anna witnesses true growth in the King of Siam. Drama and differences ensue, but in the end true progress is made and the future of Siam looks to be brighter and more accepting.
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical adaptation of The King and I was born when Gertrude Lawrence, who wanted to play the leading role, brought Landon’s novel to their attention in the 1940s. Both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s wives wanted to see the book brought to life on stage as well. When the gentlemen saw a screening of the 1946 film adaptation, they finally came around to the idea. There was certainly plenty to write about—Eastern vs. Western civilization, female vs. male dynamics, despotism vs. democracy, and so much more. The King and I became the most expensive Rodgers & Hammerstein production to date, debuting on Broadway on March 29, 1951.
This classic Broadway musical has enjoyed a revival recently, transporting a new generation of theatergoers to 1860s Siam. The FSCJ Artist Series musical production masterfully does just that. While at times uncomfortable in an age of political correctness, theatergoers find themselves in a riveting and decidedly foreign world of colonialism and the Orient. The sets, costumes, lighting, and sound captivate the imagination and draw theatergoers into this magical, mystical world so foreign from our own. Familiar songs like “Getting to Know You, “Shall We Dance,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Whistle a Happy Tune” delight the audience and inspire rousing applause. Producing a well-known Broadway favorite for a modern audience was a monumental task, yet Restaging Director Shelley Butler succeeded beautifully at the Times-Union Center in this breathtaking Broadway musical based on the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theater production.
We attended the 17th Annual Family Night on Broadway at the Opening Night of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I and the atmosphere was instantly engaging. Events such as these encourage the entire family to come out and enjoy fine theater close to home. We arrived an hour before show time to participate in a variety of kid-friendly activities. The children learned the difference between horns and antlers at the Jacksonville Zoo table, decorated an elephant with MOSH, crafted floating candles at the Jax4Kids booth, made noisy kazoos at the Jacksonville Science Festival table, and thoroughly enjoyed the Green Screen Photo Shoot sponsored by PRI. If you have kids or grandchildren of any age and want to take them to a Broadway musical, I absolutely recommend attending Family Night for any FSCJ Artist Series Broadway in Jacksonville production. We thoroughly enjoyed the festivities and my young theatergoers remained gainfully occupied in the antsy time before the performance began.
The children were instantly captivated as a ship sailed into Bangkok through the mist at the musical’s opening and they found the princes and princesses of Siam to be the best part of the production. I was worried that themes like colonialism, polygamy, and period-accurate degradation of women would be too heavy for them, but the musical was so tastefully arranged and the unconventional heroine so charmingly portrayed and empowering that we enjoyed the production from beginning to end. The experience sparked later discussions about history, social roles, and other challenging concepts. Fine art inspires and challenges the viewer; that’s part of its power.
My young teen walked away with a new passion for a story she previously disliked. My younger theatergoers (ages 10 and 8) enjoyed the dancers very much, though they were quite wiggly and restless by intermission. It’s a long night indeed. The show started at 7:30 PM and wrapped up with a rousing ovation around 10 pm. Based on content, length, and weeknight performance time, I would recommend this production for ages 10 and up. Of course, there will always be exceptions. My younger kids enjoyed it, but my oldest got more out of the experience and did not spend the second half wiggling in her seat or yawning dramatically. As a musical theater fan, I personally enjoyed every second. The pitch-perfect musical score made my heart sing and I found the stage crafting absolutely breathtaking.
Two vastly different worlds collide in amusing, at-times shocking, and captivating ways in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. There’s something for everyone. If you’re a long-time fan, you’ll appreciate how beautifully it’s brought to life here in Jacksonville and the music will tempt you to sing along. If you’ve never seen it before, prepare for an experience you’ll never forget. Whether attending as a family, with friends, on a date, or as a solitary Broadway enthusiast, The King and I at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts is a world-class experience simply too beautiful to miss.