'The King and I' comes to Bass Concert Hall

Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I." PHOTOS BY MATTHEW MURPHY

"Two different cultures that were once divided, coming together on stage."

The King and I opens in Austin on Tuesday, Dec. 12

In the early 1860s, newly-widowed Anna Leonowens accepted an invitation to the Siamese Royal Court in Bangkok in order to teach King Mongkut about the language and customs of the powerful British Empire. Anna, along with her two children, uprooted her life and everything she knew to travel to the jungle kingdom of Siam, an action that would bridge the gap between two distinctly different cultures, as well as change her life – and the King's – forever.

That's the underlying theme of Rodgers & Hammerstein's epic musical “The King and I:” the belief that despite geography, status, birth and society, in the end, we are all just people at heart.

“Two different cultures that were once divided, coming together on stage,” said Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays the role of the main character, Anna. “It really gives people hope. We learn things from each other.”

The cast of "The King and I."

At the center of “The King and I” perches Anna, the innovative and strong-willed heroine who traveled to Siam to educate the King's wives and children in the ways of British society. The story is based on Anna Leonowens' memoirs, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court and Romance of the Harem,” which was novelized by Margaret Landon in 1944. Landon added details about Siamese culture to Leonowens' firstperson accounts of her five years in the royal court of Siam, giving audiences of the day a semi-fictionalized re-telling of Leonowens' experiences.

Even to this day, there is some debate about whether some parts of the narrative happened.

“Thailand actually banned it,” Kelly said, when speaking about what draws audiences to her character. “We don't know if the relationship part is true, because they said it wasn't true. (Anna) was quite bold,” she went on. “She was incredibly forwardthinking, so she's this icon of feminism and women power.”

Opposite Anna stands the obdurate King of Siam, viewed by Westerners of the day as uncivilized and barbaric. However, much like Anna, he is progressive in his thinking. Determined to usher his kingdom into the modern world, he employs Anna to act as an adviser to improve his image in the eyes of his Western contemporaries.

As the pair struggles to find some common ground between their firmly-planted Eastern vs. Western values, they discover that through communication, patience and compassion, they can transcend the barriers of even their most complicated differences.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna.

Rodgers & Hammerstein's version of “The King and I” had its debut run in New York in 1951. In 1956, the musical was adapted to film with Yul Brynner playing the role of the King, for which he won an Academy Award. In 2015, the play won four Tony awards, including one for Best Revival of a Musical. The production is currently playing an open-ended broadway run at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York. The current touring production, directed by Bartlett Sher, reunites the award-winning creative team from “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza.”

“The King and I” boasts a score featuring classics such as “Getting To Know You,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Something Wonderful.”

So what is it about this story that makes “The King and I” so appealing, even after all of this time?

“It's epic, colorful, exciting, with very interesting cultural exchanges,” Kelly enthused. “There's even an aspect of forbidden love with a young couple, which is a very romantic, very interesting commentary for today. I hope people leave (the theater) seeing this journey between these two very different people who meet in the middle.”

This endeavoring to understand one another lends an air of timelessness to “The King and I,” and a message much needed for audiences of today: that by listening with an open heart, we cannot help but be affected. In this way, Anna and the King forge a relationship built on mutual esteem and respect, forming one of the most unique and unconventional love stories in modern musical history.

“The King and I” will play Bass Concert Hall in Austin for a limited one-week engagement, Dec. 12-17. Tickets are on sale now at BroadwayinAustin.com, texasperformingarts.org texasperformingarts.org, the Bass Concert Hall ticket office, all Texas Box Office Outlets, and by phone at 512-477-6060. For groups of 10 or more, call 877-275-3804 or email Austin.groups@broadwayacrossamerica.com.

San Marcos Daily Record

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