“To prove we’re not barbarians, they dress us up like savages!” sings the King of Siam’s head wife, played by Joan Almedilla, in the vocally lush revival of “The King and I” in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The song, “Western People Funny,” has been restored to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s heavenly score for the occasion by director Bartlett Sher.
And a good thing, too. It’s one of the few instances in a sympathy-stirring if sometimes patronizing musical classic in which the people of 19th-century Thailand are given credit for being as aware of irony as the British colonizers who’ve come to imbue them with the more “civilized” values of the West.
You can hold in your head the sense that the perspective of “The King and I,” written more than 65 years ago, is antique even as you’re enraptured by the romantic ballads — “Something Wonderful,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed” — that make this beautifully sung evening so ahhh-inspiring. The story is not aggressively judgmental: it posits the Siamese as culturally isolated rather than clueless and, for that matter, Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly), the British woman recruited to teach the King’s children, as an empathic person who’s just as unenlightened about the customs of a foreign land, and the pride of an Asian king (Jose Llana).
Sher, who originally staged this production in 2015 for Lincoln Center Theater, where it ran for 499 performances, takes pains again in this touring version — with opulent costumes by Catherine Zuber and aesthetically pleasing sets and lighting by Michael Yeargan and Donald Holder — to give texture to the portraits of the Siamese. In particular here, Almedilla’s Lady Thiang, Brian Rivera’s Kralahome and Anthony Chan’s Prince Chulalongkorn all convey with striking tenderness the conflicts they feel, in their relationships to the irascible King.
Manna Nichols and Kavin Panmeechao, as the enslaved Burmese concubine Tuptim and her clandestine lover, Lun Tha, provide estimable accounts, too, of an evolutionary shift occurring in the kingdom, in attitudes about personal choice and freedom.
The main event, of course, is the restrained love that grows between Anna and the King, a tale adapted from Leonowens’s own real-life account. New York stage veterans Kelly (“Mary Poppins”) and Llana (“Here Lies Love”) prove especially adept at building the comic dimension of their characters’ deepening bond, although the evening’s temperature never quite rises to the steamy level that’s ideal for the timeless “Shall We Dance?,” when, at long last, the King enfolds Anna in his arms and learns the art of seduction-by-polka.
Still, they both offer up the formidable presences required of this musical clash of wills, and their final scene together, with the bedridden King acknowledging his own fallibility and gratitude, is the lump-in-the-throat moment that the musical depends on. Equally satisfying is choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s faithful re-creation of Jerome Robbins’s nonpareil staging of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the ballet narrated by Tuptim that turns Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel into Tuptim’s daring declaration of independence.
It’s important to note, too, that while the Opera House has revealed itself to be an acoustical nightmare for rock musicals, the vast space (or its temporary occupants) unable to marry voices and instruments happily, it’s a far more agreeable sanctuary for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s traditional Broadway sound, and Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations. Courtesy of sound designer Scott Lehrer, the actors don’t have to compete with the robust accompaniment of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. They all manage instead to make beautiful, lyrically crisp music together.
The King and I, music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Choreography, Christopher Gattelli, based on the original by Jerome Robbins; sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; music supervision, Ted Sperling; sound, Scott Lehrer; conductor, Gerald Steichen. With Baylen Thomas. About 2 hours 50 minutes. $49-$159. Through Aug. 20 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.