From the time it made its debut in 1951 as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s fifth original musical, “The King and I” has managed to charm and captivate audiences for decades. In 1956, it was an Oscar-winning film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner and has been revived for Broadway and produced for national tours countless times.
At this point, the musical is practically unforgettable for those who have witnessed it. It may particularly be the case for Angela Baumgardner, who plays Anna in the current national tour that comes to the Lexington Opera House April 26 through April 28. When we spoke to her after more than 160 performances, she had these songs thoroughly lodged in her head, which was just fine by her.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about these classic musicals is these songs are so memorable,” she said. “They are the kind of tunes you can keep on humming.”
Set in 1860s Bangkok, “The King and I” centers around the relationship between Anna Leonowens, a British widowed single mother and schoolteacher traveling with her child to tutor the many wives and children of the King of Siam (played by Pedro Ka’Awaloa). In a clashing of both cultures and personalities, Anna and the king both find themselves occasionally butting heads while forming a connection that is based equally in respect and, eventually, romance.
What makes this particular national tour of “The King and I” must-see musical theater is that it is based on the 2015 Tony-winning Broadway revival directed by Bartlett Sher. The original sets and costumes from the production will be on the Lexington Opera House stage, including the 40-pound ballgown Baumgardner wears for the musical’s classic and climactic number “Shall We Dance?”
“Everybody’s waiting for ‘Shall We Dance?’ and they will not be disappointed,” Baumbardner said. “That’s the take-your-breath-away moment in the show.”
While the musical will delight audiences with Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers like “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers” and “I Have Dreamed,” one reason “The King and I” has such staying power is the characters. Baumgardner said seeing the 2015 Broadway revival revealed to her the strength of the female characters – ranging from Anna to Lady Thiang (Deanna Choi) to Tuptim (Paulina Yeung) – that she didn’t first notice seeing the movie as a child. Then, there is the progression of the relationship between Anna and the king that can range from confrontational to playful and truly proves to be the highlight of a grand musical spectacle.
“The King and Anna, even besides a love relationship, they really come to an appreciation for each other’s mind and determination and will,” Baumgardner said. “It’s that dynamic of seeing two strong-willed people starting to see eye-to-eye.”
As Baumgardner prepares to come to Lexington as the national tour is winding down, she has come to understand that even more than a half a century later, one of Broadway’s classic musicals continues to be produced around the world because audiences keep finding something more to love.
“Something I think I hear from people after the show is they come expecting one thing and they get so much more,” she said. “There are so many more layers that are brought out in this production.”
If you go: “The King and I”
When: 8 p.m. April 26, 2 and 8 p.m. April 27, 1 and 6:30 p.m. April 28
Tickets: $30 to $150
Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.