Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The King and I
Set in the 1860s in Thailand (then known as Siam), the play hews closely to 1946 bestseller "Anna and the King of Siam," Margaret Landon's novel about Anna Leonowens' experience as a schoolteacher for the wives and children of King Mongkut of Siam. As the play opens, a ship carrying Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly) and her son Louis (Graham Montgomery) approaches and then docks in Bangkok. (This spectacular effect was created by Michael Yeargan.) Upon embarking, Anna learns that the King (Jose Llana) has decided not to meet several key conditions of her teaching contract: most importantly, a house of her own. She demands to speak to the King, whereupon the two equally stubborn and equally volatile characters begin a conversation that vacillates between heated argument and sexyish banter for the remainder of the play.
Most of the play's dramatic tension derives from the conflict between tradition and modernity, as played out in the relationship between Anna and the King. As time passes, Anna finds herself charmed by the King's wit and impressed by his love of science and his passionate commitment to his country. Meanwhile, the King comes gradually to trust and to rely upon Anna for advice about state affairs, world events, and just about everything, except how he should manage his relationship with his children and his many wives.
Anna can live with the polygamy, but when the King carelessly accepts the "gift" of young Tuptim (Manna Nichols), a Burmese slave, she is appalled. But Anna, it turns out, is a romantic. When she discovers that Tuptim is secretly in love with Lun Tha (a strong Kavin Panmeechao), Anna facilitates secret meetings between them, in hopes that love, and/or Western values, will win out in the end. (Her hopes are not met.)
As Anna struggles to bring the King and Siam into the 19th century, director Bartlett Sher struggles to bring the play into the 21st. Like most Golden Age musicals, The King and I has been criticized for remaining hopelessly tethered to the unenlightened sensibility of the time of its composition. (This is one reason why one rarely sees it produced). As Erick Neher wrote, "Any work written in 1951 that depicts the third world is going to have some issues." Despite the critique of Western colonialism embedded in the play, it could not but perpetuate the Eurocentrism of its source material. And despite the play's implicit critique of racism and sexism, unflattering stereotypes of Asians and women remain. Still, as far as 1950s musicals go, The King and I is hardly the most problematic.
Sher's approach to adapting shows for a multicultural audience involves foregrounding those themes that are still relevant and/or were forward-looking in the context of their time. The King and I's critique of imperialism is fairly sophisticated, particularly in its emphasis on the manipulative rhetoric of primitivism that Western powers employed to rationalize colonization. In the musical, British officials are hoping to make Siam a protectorate of the Crown, on the premise that the King is a "barbarian." Sher's production emphasizes the narrative of a small and relatively powerless country trying desperately to hold on to its independence (Thailand/Siam was the only Indochinese country that managed to do so, against incredible odds). Sher highlights moments in which the characters mock the conflating of civilizing with westernizing. They resent the indignity of being forced to prove themselves "worthy" of remaining independent by demonstrating their command of Western cultural customsputting on shoes or absurdly wide hoop skirts so as to not to seem "backward."
Sher also tries to build upon the play's (modest) critique of sexism. In this production, not a single female character comes off as helpless or demure. Kelly's Anna scrupulously avoids the flustered-and-feminine quality that Deborah Kerr brought to the movie version of Anna. Take the scene in which the King orders Anna keep her head lower than his whenever she is in his presence. Watching Kerr nervously prostrate herself before Yul Brynner's booming command can make you cringe. By contrast, here Anna is too self-possessed and far too wise to spin to be manipulated by the King's macho bullying. Bow she doeseventuallybut only as part of a (tacit) bargain: she dips; in return, she gets her house. Similarly, this play's Tuptim is young but she is not naïve. She has no illusions about the injustice to which she is subjected and she is angry. She sees herself as enslaved and understands that her "marital relations" with the King are nothing other than rape.
Kelly as Anna and Llana as the King play their parts with heart, soul, and irresistible charm. Kelly's luscious mezzo is the musical equivalent of rich English clotted cream spread over a slice of Victorian spongecake, and she's versatile enough to do equal justice to ballads like "Hello, Young Lovers," and upturns "Getting to Know You" (the international K-6 teachers' anthem).
It is a challenge for any actor to play a role that is closely associated with one performer. Brynner created the role of the King at a time when macho chest-puffing and gruffness did not come off as fearsome, but (to some at least) as sexy and endearing. Llana's King is far more human and complex, and he has more gravitas. His temper stems in part from his agitation about Britain's designs upon his country. He is also frustrated, and eventually tortured, by what he believes to be the necessity of manifesting the kind of cold brute power that he feels a king must and should display, a power that he at some level knows to be wrong. Llana expertly balances all these facets of the King's personality, but it is the undercurrent of vulnerability he brings to the role that gives his performance its pathos, and gives the King something like a tragic stature.
The showstopper belongs to a majestic Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King's "first wife." The song, "Something Wonderful," can be understood as a sentimental manipulation, as a heartbreaking rationalization of a woman's subordination in a sexist regime, or as a philosophical meditation about moral relativity. But it is always also a passionate expression of love. As Almedilla stands in dignified stillness under a single spotlight, her rich contralto (imagine oak as liquid) evokes fragility, pride and sadness, all at the same time.
These are the good parts. Cringe-worthy and offensive moments remain, particularly the problem that patriarchyand male violenceseems at times to be displaced and projected onto the King of Siam. That and the problem that Western notions of moral superiority are inextricably bound to the narrative. As much as Sher stresses the play's anti-colonial thrust, it remains decidedly not post-colonial. However much you tweak it, it is still Anna's story, and so it remains the story of a cultured white Englishwoman who brings enlightenment to an Indochina still stuck in the Dark Ages. Wittingly or not, the play reproduces the white savior narrative of its source material.
However, as it turns out, that narrative is not historically accurate; and it is only part of the whole story. The real Anna was the multilingual, multicultural daughter of an Anglo-Indian woman. Born in India and raised in both India and Yemen, she spent little time in England before embarking on her adventure in Siam. Understandably, Leonowens deliberately mystified her multi-racial heritage, out of concern that revealing it might compromise her job prospects. Still one can't help but wonder what it must have felt like for an Anglo-Indian young woman to be inculcating Western culture in the children of an Indochinese king, even as she assists him in staving off Western colonization.
But that's another play (the post-colonial one). In the meantime, I can confirm that Richard Rodgers really is the Verdi of American musical theater. If you sideline the questionable facets of the show that remain, you'll probably be swept away, as I was, by the magnificence of Rodgers' score, masterfully performed by a live orchestra. Throw in a superb cast, Tony Award-winning costumes by Catherine Zuber, and a dozen so really outstanding dancers, and you've got ... something wonderful.
The King and I by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, based upon the novel "Anna and the King of Siam," by Margaret Landon. Performs through March 5, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55403. Tickets can be purchased at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 612-339-7007. For more information on the tour, visit thekinganditour.com.
Directed by Bartlett Sher