Thursday, March 2, 2017

The King and I is a Lavish Delight

Despite the show's problematic history, it's a lovely immersion into a complicated world of splendor.


Photo by Matthew Murphy.

There's no such thing as an untouchable classic. I have always been a firm advocate of judiciously editing stories from the past (even Shakespeare); they still have something to say to us, but we don't need to swath ourselves in the racism/homophobia/colonial perspective of the time they were written in, and sometimes they're just too damn long.

On this vein of thinking, a great case is currently being made for prudent pruning of the cultural behemoth that is the catalog of Roger's and Hammerstein musicals. I was raised on the 1940s and 1950s movie versions of these shows. I have a strong love for the catchy tunes and sunny dispositions of these film versions. But many of them, written in the last dying throes of the colonial era, really need a refresh to retain the good in them but give a more realistic view of the stories they try to present.

Photo by Matthew Murphy. 

The King and I, currently running at the Orpheum Theater, is a perfect example of how this can be done. For new viewers, The King and I tells the story of a Anna, a widow of a British colonial officer in the 1860s who travels to the kingdom of Siam to serve as a teacher to the king's children after her husband dies. Siam (now known as Thailand) is the only kingdom in Southeast Asia that has yet to fall to a colonial power, and Anna is retained to help the king and his family navigate the treacherous waters of international politics in the nineteenth century. There are many growing pains in this relationship, as Anna remains relentlessly Western and independent; the king and his family try their hardest to cling to an ancient world that is rapidly slipping away from them; and the unending drumbeats of progress drive them all to a series of cultural compromises. The story remains multiplicitous, a great thing in our current age of oversimplifications. The King and I resists reducing Anna and the King's relationship to a storybook romance, and with its updates lessens the impact of cultural whitewashing, demonstrating the profound conflict within a man who must keep his kingdom, people and heritage alive without leaving them to be swallowed by the march of Europe across the world.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

This Broadway tour pulled no stops with its casting, featuring a set of all-star players. Laura Michelle Kelly is a Broadway and West End regular and knocks it out of the park as Anna Leonowens. Kelly has a gorgeous voice (think Marni Nixon meets Julie Andrews), and her subtle acting makes Anna into a subversive, complex character. She is beautifully paired with Jose Llana as the King of Siam. Llana starred in the Tony-winning revival of this show before it went on tour, and his thoughtful performance demonstrates the distress of a King under attack. Llana really bridges the show's cultural divide, and he was wonderful.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The ensemble cast (featuring mostly people of color, always a pleasure and too often a rarity, especially in traveling shows) is too large to name individually, but they really support the show. Joan Almedilla is wonderful as the King's first wife Lady Thiang; another Broadway superstar, Almedilla perfectly navigates the audience through the space in between Anna's staunch Westernism and the King's traditional upbringing, showing the warm side to two stridently separate perspectives. She also has a rich, lovely voice that weaves beautifully with the rest of the cast. Manna Nichols is excellent as the renegade Princess Tuptim, driving the story's political themes into stark relief. Kavin Panmeechao is delicious as Tuptim's lover Lun Tha, which a gorgeous, lyrical voice and the sparkling eyes of a lover to match. And Anthony Chan is powerful as the young Prince Chulalongkorn, a boy who too soon is forced to become a king. Chan has the proud demeanor befitting such a prince, and he is a wonderful addition to the cast.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the absolute best parts of the show is the gloriously gilt, colorful set and costumes. The entire show is replete with silks and golds and deep colors and shining Buddhas. Michael Yeargan (set designer) and Catherine Zuber (costume designer) are Tony Award winners for a reason, and you won't be disappointed by what they have to offer here. The orchestra, conducted by Gerald Steichen, is similarly wonderful and provides a powerhouse sound. And the choreography (Christopher Gattelli) is marvelous, particularly in a thorough, riveting sequence of Thai dancing during "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet. The sequence is the best of the show, and you will consumed with the delicate, ornate dancing.

Photo by Matthew Murphy.

While the shroud of unexamined white privilege still hangs over this story, don't dismiss The King and I too quickly. Nestled within catchy, joyous songs such as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Shall We Dance" and "Getting to Know You" are some really important themes. It is not often we are graced with an examination of slavery from the perspective of a non-Western, non-white perspective. It is not often we are shown an inside look into the problems of colonialism from the perspective of those who it would replace. And it's not often we see a white main character treated as a minority, forced to reckon with her cultural assumptions and wrestling with her place in two very different worlds. The script has been updated and it could (and probably should) have gone further; but I still greatly enjoyed The King and I, and for many audience members is a good first step to understanding white and Christian privilege, colonialism, and just how quickly things have changed in the last 150 years.

I highly recommend going to see The King and I before it closes on March 5; the cast is wonderful, the sets and costumes are spectacular, and it's a true glimpse into what might have been if we had only taken the time to observe other cultures rather than destroy them. The show is long but thoughtful, and sure to provide a great date night. See more information and buy tickets by clicking on this link.