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Musical Theatre Review by Matthew Grant
What: The King and I
When: Now Playing June- August
Where: The Princess Theatre
Directed by: Christopher Renshaw
Starring Lisa McCune and Jason Scott Lee
The King and I is a theatrical spectacle.
The fifth musical by the team of composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II - and arguably, their best work - The King and I sits as part of Western culture’s collective consciousness. We know all of the songs. We know the story. In fact, we pretty much know all there is to know about The King and I, before we even enter the theatre. It holds very little, if any, surprises. It satisfies. We don’t feel cheated. We’ve got what we paid for… And - like an up sized McMeal deal – we’re full at the end.
The King and I is based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which, in turn, is derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. The musical's plot relates the experiences of Anna, a British schoolteacher hired as part of the King's drive to modernize his country. The relationship between the King and Anna is marked by conflict as well as by a love that neither can admit.
The musical originally premiered in 1951. The famous Hollywood film version staring Yul Bryner (1956 ) ensured it’s place in Western popular culture and a theatrical production has pretty much been playing somewhere in the world ever since…Well, somewhere that is - except in Thailand.
There has never been a run of the The King and l playing in Thailand. None of the five film versions have ever legally been screened there. In fact, The King and I is banned in the country in which it is set.
Insulting the monarchy is illegal in Thailand. One of Thailand’s proudest achievements is that the West never colonized Siam (known as Thailand since 1939). Thai history attributes that triumph to monarchs like King Mongkut, who helped his country modernize without becoming a puppet state, like so many of its Southeast Asian neighbors. The firmly held position in Thailand is that The King and I is a blatant misrepresentation of history and an outright exaggeration of the influence an English governess could possibly have had on the King.
This version of The King and I, staring Australia’s Lisa McCune and American (Chinese-Hawaiian) Jason Scott Lee, is a presentation of a reworking of the original Rogers and Hammerstein book. The first major revival to break away from the original R & H staging and interpretation was an Australian production directed by British Theatre Director, Christopher Renshaw in early 1991. Renshaw chose to ignore the printed stage directions in the original script hoping to capture "an authentic Thai experience". [*1] The attraction between, a less demure Anna and, a now younger, King was made more explicit and all Asian roles were played by Asian actors. Choreographers, Lar Lubovitch and Jerome Robbins created new, more authentic Thai ballets and a complete reinterpretation of the sets inspired by Renshaw’s visit to Bangkok, were designed.
This current production sees Renshaw back in the director’s seat continuing the work he began two and a half decades ago. The result is a rich feast for the eye. McCune and Lee, both seasoned performers, execute their craft with keen precision. Susan Kikuchi’s (choreographer) dance sequences are also truly beautiful in this production; The Uncle Tom’s Cabin sequence being the highlight of the show for me. The ensemble cast in this production is strong. Seeing Marty Rhone (the Kralahome) on stage is always a joyous pleasure and a real bonus of the experience.
Stepping into the Princess Theatre offers an enchanting experience of whimsy and The King and I is a perfect fit. Whilst the R & H's treatment of its Asian subject is fantastical and not intended to be realistic, this confection of the exotic and the absurd – like Gilbert and Sullivan’s interpretation of Japan in The Mikado – hovers ever so close to being outright patronizing. The show is a museum piece. But whilst musically, The King and I is a triumph, just like our McHappy Burger – it doesn’t have a lot of nutrition!
3.5 Stars
Back in the 1990’s, Renshaw was keen to challenge the 1950’s attitudes when "Orientalism was used as an exoticism rather than a real understanding of the particular culture."[*1] Theatre arts professor Eileen Blumenthal, called Renshaw’s production then, a documentary of "who we've been" in the West.[*2] It seems that not a great deal of attitudinal change has occurred over the past twenty five years and this production, exquisitely beautiful though it is, won’t be hitting the theatres of Bangkok in the foreseeable future.
[*1] Grossberg, Michael. “British director lends authenticity to “The King and I”, The Columbus Dispatch (Columbas, Ohio), 1/2/98
[*2] Blumenthal, Eileen. "How Thai Is It?", American Theatre,July/August 1996, pp. 6–7
Photo by Blain Crellin