Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly are terrific in “The King and I” at the Golden Gate Theatre. (Courtesy Matthew Murphy)

‘King and I’ makes a classic contemporary

Although it’s a more than a century old and a world away, the story in “The King and I” is filled with timeless themes and emotions, as exemplified by the pitch-perfect production in town at the Golden Gate Theatre.

I immediately got a lump in my throat at the outset when Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her son Louis (Graham Montgomery) sang “I Whistle a Happy Tune” after sailing into Bangkok’s dock on a huge ship (no expense was spared on the gorgeous set by Michael Yeargan).

There’s nothing more soul-pleasing than hearing an old show tune — one you’re not quite sure how you know it — performed live, in context, by a Broadway veteran like Kelly.

When she launched into “Hello Young Lovers,” whose verse I had never truly listened to before, I cried.

Every song in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s melodic score is a little life lesson, something Bartlett Sher plays up in this tour of the
Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center show.

As he did in “South Pacific,” the director again applies the same genius, turning what might have been a dusty classic (based on the book “Anna and the King of Siam”) into a brilliant, touching, relevant work of art.

The conflicts between the English widow who arrives in Siam in the 1860s, and the King (Jose Llana), who contracts her to teach his children, are that between Eastern and Western cultures, and between men and women. Kelly and Llana (Yul who?) portray the pair with impeccable charm, strength and humor.

In the song “A Puzzlement,” the King’s dilemma over the political future of his country feels amazingly contemporary.

The show is bountiful, from the sumptuously hued fabric adorning the sets, to Catherine Zuber’s sparkling costumes for the king’s many wives and children.

A blue-and-purple garden scene with hanging flowers, in which the romantic couple — Tuptim, the reluctant new wife to the king (Manna Nichols) and her secret lover Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) sing “We Kiss in a Shadow” — is breathtaking.

So is the second act ballet, the show-within-a show choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, based on the original 1951 dance by Jerome Robbins.

It was no surprise when, after “Shall We Dance?,” the famous penultimate number, patrons exited the theater humming.

REVIEW
The King and I
Presented by SHN
Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 11
Tickets: $75 to $275
Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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