Classic songs can’t make up for colonialist problems in ‘The King and I’

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At the very start of “The King and I,” a pretty, clear-eyed British governess arrives in the port of Bangkok and sings “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” a plucky musical classic about confidence in the face of fear.

It could be so easy to fall into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shimmering, near-perfect score and another one of their governess-with-gumption tales, but it soon becomes clear that Anna Leonowens (the lovely Laura Michelle Kelly) and her young son Louis (Graham Montgomery) are afraid of Thai people. Of course, Anna is actually nervous about working for the king, but the staging finds Anna and Louis stalked about the stage by a mob of curious Thai people, poking at Anna’s hoop skirt and getting aggressive in selling their wares. Whatever the intent, visually it’s textbook Yellow Peril.

In 1951, when “The King and I” premiered, the show was downright progressive — a strong, independent woman and the implication of an interracial romance. Unfortunately, Anna’s cultural superiority and colonialist attitude hasn’t aged well, and director Bartlett Sher’s faithful, sumptuous revival is not in the business of revising the musical’s many faults.  

It doesn’t help that this year was particularly poor timing. In October, the deeply loved “People’s King” of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej died and the nation announced a year of official mourning, along with 30 days of canceled festivities. Against this backdrop of grief, it is more difficult than usual to let go of discomfort and enjoy the lush fantasy steeped in orientalism of “The King and I.”

That’s unfortunate because the cast of the Lincoln Center Theater production, now at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, is absolutely stellar.

 Jose Llana has perhaps the hardest job as the king and makes for an electric, witty, complicated monarch. His rendition of “A Puzzlement” is energetically ferocious. As for Kelly, she is a magnificent performer, and it’s not her fault that Anna is occasionally insufferable. When faced with the king’s polygamy or some of his less savory policies on slavery and women’s rights, Anna insists that such barbarism would never happen in the West. That’s pretty rich, considering England’s own history of slavery, colonialism and the fact that Victorian womanhood was no feminist picnic. It’s also an insult to the real King Mongkut who actually enacted reforms for women’s rights.

The musical’s voice of reason is Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), the king’s chief wife and a kind of court puppet master, manipulating everybody for the good of the country. In a phone interview, dancer Stephanie Lo — who plays another wife — said that, in this adaptation, Almedilla is much more of a “mastermind” rather than “compliant wife.” She also gets to sing the often-cut “Western People Funny.” “To prove we’re not barbarians, they dress us up like savages,” she sings, calling out the corsets and hoop skirts of European “civilization” for their absurd cruelty. Lady Thiang then proceeds to wear a Westernized Thai outfit instead.

For all its problems, “The King and I” still has the ability to enchant. The introduction of the king’s many offspring, “March of the Siamese Children,” is heart-meltingly adorable. Tuptim’s dance “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, is strange and haunting, despite hints of a white savior narrative. Then there is the thrill of “Shall we Dance?,” which delivers a jolt of energy thanks to Kelly and Llana’s wonderful chemistry in the second act and the exuberant staging.

It’s not clear whether the best parts of “The King and I” can be excavated from the colonial superiority complex baked deeply into its narrative, but it is also a classic that has staked out its place in American culture and in the hearts of many.

“When I told my friends that I had booked it, they were so excited because they remembered the music,” said Lo. “I didn’t really grow up with musical theater, I just watched ‘The King and I,’ probably because it was an Asian musical that I could relate to.”

“The King and I” likely isn’t going anywhere, but it is in desperate need of a thorough reexamination. Why tired, Eurocentric narratives like this continue to be revived without greater challenge is, frankly, a puzzlement.   

“The King and I” will be running at SHN Golden Gate Theatre through Dec. 11.

Miyako Singer covers theater. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @miyasinger.

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