Twentieth-century French literary maven François Mauriac once observed, “If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads.”
That epigram could be extended to the theater, as certain works are so familiar and beloved, revisiting them can be a holiday reunion with old friends.
That's certainly the case with the touring production of “The King and I,” at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through Jan. 21. Set in the 1860s, the musical is based on the novel by Margaret Landon, whose fictionalized account of the real-life adventures of Anna Leonowens in the court of the Siamese king inspired first a film, and then Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical, which has been frequently revived since its Broadway bow in 1951.
The Lincoln Center's recent production won the 2015 Tony Award for musical revival, and judging from this sumptuously mounted tour, which recapitulates director Bartlett Sher's stunning staging, it's easy to see why.
Christopher Gattelli's delightful dance interludes, based on Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, also carry over from the Lincoln Center production, as do the show's superb design elements, including Scott Lehrer's sound and Donald Holder's lighting. Massive but malleable, Michael Yeargan's eye-popping sets are an exercise in theatrical utility, while Catherine Zuber's period costumes delicately convey the times, with just the right soupçon of glitz appropriate to the occasion.
Music supervisor Ted Sperling helms a blissful cast, spearheaded by Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and Jose Llana as the King of Siam. Matter-of-factly elegant, Kelly imbues her character with a refreshing naturalism. Early in the musical, her rendition of “Hello, Young Lovers” establishes the widowed Anna's sheer dauntlessness, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of loss that brings tears to our eyes — just one example of a masterful, moving performance.
Any actor who plays the King must find his own light in the shadow of Yul Brynner's indelible portrayal, and Llana certainly shines in his delightfully revisionist turn, which emphasizes the boyish uncertainty under his character's outward imperiousness. Veins of previously unplumbed humor come to light in the performance, but when it comes time to twist the heartstrings, he has the gravitas, judging from the prolific use of hankies throughout the audience.
Gorgeous-voiced Joan Almedilla wrenches maximum emotion from her sublime rendition of “Something Wonderful,” while Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao combine sheer youthful beauty with seasoned talent as the doomed lovers, Tuptim and Lun Tha.
“King” yields a motherlode of classic songs, including “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” “I Have Dreamed” and, of course, the show's signature tune, “Shall We Dance?” — all rendered with brio by an exceptional cast. If you're at all a fan of classic American musicals, this production is a joy.
“The King and I”
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; check for exceptions, including added Monday performances and added matinees. Ends Jan. 21. No evening performances on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, no performances on Christmas Day.
Tickets: $35 and up
Info: (800) 982-2787, www.hollywoodpantages.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
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An earlier version of this post included a photo caption that misidentified to whom the character Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) was speaking. She was talking to Tuptim (Manna Nichols).