My daughter, Mary, and I have seen every major production of our favorite musical, The King and I, since she was six. Almost 30 years now. We have seen the movie hundreds of times, seen if off and on Broadway, to cuttings at symphonic programs. If it is done, we go — although I have drawn the line at high school performances unless I am related to one of the actors. 🙂

Last night, Mary gave me an early Christmas gift of two tickets to see the Lincoln Center Theater road version of The King and I. So I took my “best girl” to dinner, donned my black tie — which she has insisted on since our first father-daughter date to see The King and I on with Lou Diamond Phillips. Usually, I have lower expectations for tours that run after Broadway, as they sometimes seem to be using the same casting director as the Ice Capades. The sets being trucked from city to city are usually not as grand or exciting. It is understandable as a roadshow is a rough life.

All of this to say — last night, I was treated to the best production of The King and I in my lifetime.

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First, the acting: I thought it would be impossible to beat the performance of Debra Kerr and Yul Brynner. Those performances are iconic and I have always felt badly for those who later took on the roles as no matter how good you are, you will never be Kerr or Brynner.

The role of Anna was taken on by Laura Michelle Kelly who has played this role on the stage at Lincoln Center. She is perhaps best known for her work in London. America will fall in love with her and her version of Anna. She hit every mark that Debra Kerr hit, and from where I was sitting, she even looked like Kerr, but that is not enough to receive this rave. She had all the grace, elegance and talent of Kerr, but also managed to make this her own. Her version of “Shall We Dance” was more beautiful, fun, touching and had more sexual tension than the classic film. Her voice, acting, slight comedic hat tip and phrasing was as if the role had never been played before and had indeed been written for her.

The King, played by Jose Llana is a role I would not wish on my worst enemy. It is a battle lost before the curtain rises. You will never be THE KING that Yul plays still on the stages of the eternities. Llana at first, I thought, was too weak to play the king, but I quickly realized this came from the fact that I had only seen people imitating the 1956 king. Once I stopped expecting an impersonator, I saw a new king — Jose Llana had made the role his as well. This is not easy. His subtle choices made him a more accessible King and one for a new age. Brave, and well done.

I could go on and say the same for almost every cast member; the young prince; Tuptim; her lover; the “Head Wife”; and the children.

The “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” scene was not only more beautiful than the movie or any production I have seen, but it was more beautifully staged and emotionally powerful than I could have ever imagined.

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Everything was in its rightful place. The lavish costumes were so spot on they brought me back to my time in Bangkok earlier this year. The first costume for Tuptim was so simple and pure it almost made her look angelic. Couple that with her performance and you could almost see the ethereal rays of light.

Rarely does one need to recognize the lighting design, but from the tricks of light from the opening curtain and first sunset, it was almost a dance between the lighting designer and the set designer. Shall we dance? Yes, they will and they did. Notice the lack of a spot on the palace pillars as the king walks around them.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise in seeing that it was directed by Bartlett Sher. I spoke with him after the performance to congratulate him on what I believe is…

The King of The King and I productions.

My grandfather was a horse man and he always told me every Kentucky Derby that you don’t bet on the horse, you bet on the trainer and jockey. How appropriate here. This is a good horse that has been ridden by many talented riders, but the trainer and jockey this time have given the stage a triple crown.

See it when it comes to your town.