Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is a puzzlement. For the modern viewer at least. The classic show has one of the most beautiful and haunting scores in the legendary R&H canon, but that book … that book. It’s one part Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, one part Westernized history lesson of a culture that deserved better – a fetishization of Asian stereotypes that somehow doubles upon itself as a stringent critique of racism, ethnocentrism, and misogyny.
The King and I is very much a “have its cake and eat it too” smorgasbord of mid-century tropes. Is it a Rorschach test indicting Westerners’ elitist, imperialist, entitled tendencies, or is it simply a smug regurgitation of prejudices for self-satisfied commercial ends? That whole “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in the second act was likely a provocative critique of racism in its day, but our post-Book of Mormon-conditioned cynicism now brings the sequence a whole new layer of culturally appropriated meta-awkwardness.
Blessedly, Lincoln Center’s recent Tony-winning revival, now touring nationally and currently running at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, sidesteps (mostly) the show’s more cringe-worthy moments with a light, humanistic approach that focuses less on spectacle (although there is just the right amount of glitz) and more on the quiet moments as Anna and the King find their appreciation for each other as people not stereotypes. The time-warped jokes about hoop skirts and polygamy still abound, but the production and its cast do a lovely job winking at the clunkier bits without condescending to the source material or breaking characterization. That’s an impressive high wire act.
The cast is sublime, with leads Elena Shaddow (Anna), Jose Llana (King of Siam), Joan Almedilla (Lady Thiang), and Q Lim (Tuptim) offering riched, nuanced turns on iconic characters. Llana plays up the childlike whimsy of an authoritarian wise enough to know his limitations but far too arrogant to openly admit them. His “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” becomes a kind of postmodern emotional shorthand that never devolves into hackneyed shtick (more “I am Groot,” less “That’s what SHE said!”).
Shaddow presents a fiery and steely Anna, overlayed with poignant notes of loss and heartache -#ImWithHoopSkirt. Almedilla avoids the community theatre pitfall of devolving Lady Thiang into Cinderella’s Lady Tremaine, painting a portrait of a dutiful if wounded courtesan who finds agency working between the cracks in a broken system. Her “Something Wonderful” is a heartbreaking, pretzel-logic showstopper.
Q Lim’s Tuptim – offered as a gift of “property” to the King at the show’s beginning (even though her heart belongs to another) – is the show’s moral compass, revealing the toxic hypocrisy at the heart of Siam’s patriarchy. Her “My Lord and Master” is ablaze with a welcome feminist undercurrent that might be anachronistic to this show and its setting but perfectly welcome in this #MeToo era. “We Kissed In a Shadow” takes on an increased urgency in Lim’s hands as well. Thank goodness.
As expected, the costumes (Catherine Zuber) and sets (Michael Yeargen) are divine. You can’t do this show without some sartorial sumptuousness, and Zuber delivers, her cast awash in gorgeous, flowing jewel-toned silks. The sets are more evocative than detailed, filling the space with floating, gliding pillars that represent a number of locales. Yeargen’s scenic work brings a lovely and surreal dream-like quality to the proceedings which suits Bartlett Sher’s contemporary and self-aware direction.
The King and I is a classic that deserves to be rediscovered by modern audiences, and this production is one for the ages, smoothing over any problematic datedness with a fresh and humane approach. This production celebrates the wonder and beauty of cultures finding appreciation for each other and, more importantly, of people letting go of gendered and racial pretenses and embracing their common humanity.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language