The King and I at Detroit’s Fox Theatre: A puzzlement worth solving


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Originally published by Encore Michigan

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.

king and IThe 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.

king and I posterAs 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.


king and I audienceReel 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 BookboundCommon 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

…and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too: The Book of Mormon … Detroit engagement

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This isn’t going to be an honest-to-goodness, legitimate theatre review per se. Heck, I bought a bag of t-shirts and three magnets at the “Shop of Mormon,” for heaven’s sake, so you know I am not playing the dispassionate critic here.

Nonetheless, we saw the musical The Book of Mormon this afternoon at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre…and we loved it.

Crude? Yes. Offensive? Maybe. Catchy? You bet. Heartwarming? Indubitably.

The show, written by South Park‘s Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Avenue Q‘s Robert Lopez, is a loony melange with Forbidden Broadway, The Producers, The Lion King, and (oddly) The King and I in its Great White Way-loving DNA.

The performers all acquitted themselves beautifully in the well-oiled, pneumatic, theme park way that merchandise-pushing, cash cow national Broadway tours nowadays achieve effortlessly. The first act was a bit sluggish which was partly an issue with the book and partly the consequence of it being a matinee show at the end of a long run. Christopher John O’Neill as schlubby, screw-up Elder Cunningham was the standout among an exceptional cast, giving a lovable, transcendent performance in what could have been a shrill, one-note role.

As you may already know, the show is about two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Africa to teach the people there about Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and “golden plates.” Things go awry for the duo almost immediately, and the resulting misadventures – an uneasy, yet thrilling mix of satire and homage – call into question the very nature of faith itself.

Much mock disdain may come in these twitchy, thin-skinned times of the creators setting organized religion in their snark-filled sights. Those uptight twits are missing the point. The show has a clear and refreshing point of view. Okay, there is no “one true” religion and all religious texts are inherently goofy if you think about any of their myth-filled contents too much. However, faith in something – a book, a higher power, one’s own imagination, Orlando, frogs, each other, whatever – can inspire and helps us grow, providing fulfillment and evolution.

My favorite numbers of the show – “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” and “Joseph Smith American Moses” – highlighted this perspective with zany aplomb. Blind adherence to some notion of divine reward/punishment saps one’s spirit. Faith in ourselves and in our ability to do the right thing here and now is key to an authentic existence.

Who’d a thunk the South Park guys would turn in such an empowering, humanistic treatise disguised as a scatalogical, sophomoric romp? …and I got a pretty nifty t-shirt too!