All hail Oscar Hammerstein II!
I thought I knew this show. I could whistle the happy tunes by Richard Rodgers like any kid in 1956 who had just seen the movie version.
But now, at this stage of life, much of the pleasure comes from the story — book and lyrics by Hammerstein. When you go, you will be listening carefully to the words of wisdom that flowed from his pen. You will suffer the insecurities, experience the yearnings, and feel the frustration of a cast of characters thrown together in an 1860s world socially constructed long before they arrived.
It is, then, a story with much to say, and this glorious national touring production (the 2015 Tony-winning revival, directed by Bartlett Sher) of "The King and I" says it all.
How deep the show is going to go emotionally is evident in “Hello, Young Lovers,” an apostrophe to romance by the newly widowed Anna (Elena Shaddow). Having just arrived in Siam to be an English teacher to the king’s children, this plucky Englishwoman gives voice to her grief and gratitude. The song pivots between looking backward and looking forward.
And, in a way, this is exactly the pivot that many characters in the story wrestle with. The King (Jose Llana) was born to rule, and to rule the way those before him had. Why should this female — female! — from a far-flung country have anything to say about the way things are done in his country. (Indeed, there’s a proper swipe at social conventions in Act 2’s opener, “Western People Funny.”)
Nevertheless, he is perplexed by what is happening, as he confesses in “A Puzzlement.”
For her part, Anna sings “Getting to Know You” as a lilting confession that she is learning to appreciate the ways of other cultures, but it’s Lady Thiang’s (a powerful Joan Almedilla) stunning “Something Wonderful” that makes Anna realize how hard she has to work to understand someone different, warts and all.
Of course, the show is not without humor (as humor is often a great barrier-breaker) and charm. “The March of Siamese Children” and “Shall We Dance?” remain delightful set pieces.
And Act 2’s ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” is a theatrical tour de force, an illustration of the story’s theme of freedom from tyranny on all levels. In this case, it mirrors the poignant love affair between Tuptim (Q Lim) and Lun Tha (Kevin Panmeechao), who are destroyed by cultural convention.
Catherine Zuber won a Tony Award for her costumes, which are sumptuous. The lighting and the set designs make the production a visual treat. Conductor Gerald Steichen leads a pit orchestra of largely local instrumentalists — bravo! — through a score that you will be humming on the way out. Or whistling.
Of course, Shaddow and Llana must carry the show as characters who thrust and parry and ultimately polka. They do, brilliantly. Anna and the King’s difficult relationship is so credible that you might not even notice the hurry-up ending to the story, the only flaw in Hammerstein’s book.
And observe the subtle work of Charlie Oh as the heir apparent, whose reactions to unfolding events suggest that change is coming to Siam and the 19th century world at large.
'The King and I'
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Through May 6
HOW MUCH: $107.50-$20
MORE INFO: 518.346.6204, or proctors.org