‘Kings’ go forth at ‘royal’ season at The Muny

Photo: Larry Pry

ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

A royal and resplendent production of “The King and I” is the final production of the 2012 season at The Muny.

The musical runs through the season’s final curtain on Aug. 12 and like a few others among the seven shows in the current season includes a royal personage as a central character, in this case Broadway-savvy Kevin Gray in the title role of the King of Siam, whose terrific performance is matched by that of Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna.

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A classic of American musical theater, “The King and I” features music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, both Jewish geniuses of the halcyon days of Broadway and both Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winners.

The fact-based story is based on the best-selling book “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, which was made into a sumptuous, non-musical film in 1946, starring a young Rex Harrison in his Hollywood debut as King Chom Kloa (Mongkut) of Siam (now Thailand), and Irene Dunne as Anna Leonowens (re-named Anna L. Owens in the film). Anna was hired by the semi-despotic but intellectually curious King in the mid-1860s to teach dozens of the King’s children of his “favored” wives.

Gray is terrific as the King, building upon his experience in the role on its Broadway and Off-Broadway tours. He brings the same arrogant, but vulnerable energy to the demanding role that Yul Brynner made legendary during the musical’s Broadway debut in 1951. Gray’s brings his own body language to the performance, along with splendid acting and singing.

Laura Michelle Kelly nails the part of Anna. Her voice, stage presence and convincing acting are brought into play. Kelly has appeared in shows as diverse as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Mary Poppins,” and as a little girl played the part of Princess Ying Yaowalak with her family in a production of “The King and I.” Her interaction with the on-stage kids, including Matt Johnson as her son Louis Leonowens, Joan Almedilla as the Prince and the high-energy performers who played her worshipfully respectful pupils, is convincing and endearing.

The battle of wills between the progressive, independent-minded Anna and the stubborn, sexist, egocentric King parallels that of a later Rodgers and Hammerstein show, “The Sound of Music,” in which the defecting Catholic nun Maria engages in a similar struggle with Baron von Trapp.

The Muny production team, including director Rob Ruggerio, choreographer Ralph Perkins and executive producer Mike Isaacson, present the classic “The King and I” in its pure form, with none of the cute St. Louis references to icons like Ted Drewes or the St. Louis Cardinals sneaked into the narrative. This was a wise choice, since “The King and I” is a true classic of the American stage, is based on a well-documented true story, and unfolds like an opera.

Audiences leave “whistling a happy tune,” one of the standards from the show, along with “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance.” As always, The Muny orchestra performs admirably. Shout-outs are also deserved by the scene, lighting and costume design.

The Muny’s lineup this year included the King of Siam, the King/Pharaoh of Egypt in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and a Pirate King in “Pirates”— what could be described in poker terms as a “perfect” hand — a Royal Straight Flush!