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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I at DPAC Looks and Sounds Gorgeous, But Its Racial Stereotypes Are Troubling in 2017

Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) teaches the Royal Children (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) teaches the Royal Children (photo by Matthew Murphy)

In April 2017, the Twitterverse exploded with outrage when Pepsi® created a socially tone-deaf TV ad in which Kendall Jenner seemingly solved the pandemic of police brutality by handing a police officer a soda. People cried “Wasn’t there a meeting? Did no one suggest that this might be offensive? Am I the only one paying any attention?”

I ask the same question when it comes to the new national tour of The King and I.

With a 1951 Tony® Award for Best Musical, an Oscar®-winning 1956 film adaptation, and four Broadway revivals (three of which won the Tony® for Best Revival of a Musical), one could argue that Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, has actually earned the hackneyed honorific “timeless classic.”

The musical is based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which itself is loosely adapted from the “memoirs” of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s–memoirs now believed to be at least partially fabricated.

Directed by Bartlett Sher and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, the 2015 Lincoln Center production, winner of the 2015 Tony® for Best Revival of a Musical, continues to tour the United States and is scheduled through next summer.

Donald Holder works hardest to make this King and I different from earlier incarnations, using lighting to delicately paint the stage with the warm strokes of 19th century Thai artwork. Michael Yeargan’s sets, though inelegant in movement, are intricately designed.

The Tony Award®-winning costumes of Catherine Zuber feel more authentic and toned-down than the garish garments of earlier incarnations. A backstage video of a King and I quick-change earned more than 1 million hits on YouTube, proving that a well-made dress can garner as much attention as a performer.

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas, and Graham Montgomery in “The King and I” (photo by Matthew Murphy).

Sound designer Scott Lehrer, has created a balanced mix, giving music director Ted Sperling’s vocalists their share of attention without diminishing Robert Russell Bennett’s lush but timeworn 1951 arrangements, conducted with gusto by conductor Gerald Steichen, who is visible to the audience.

Fresh off of her Broadway turn in Finding Neverland, British actor Laura Michelle Kelly plays widowed English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. Kelly finds the vulnerability and nuance in a character often played superficially. The energy and wit she brings to “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You” is one of the production’s few truly gripping moments.

Filipino actor-singer Jose Llana played the young lover Lun Tha in the 1996 revival of The King and I and returns to his theatrical roots as the autocratic King Mongkut of Siam. Llana is a sillier King than most–combining the requisite dry wit of “A Puzzlement” with goofy faces and voices–and charms both Anna and the audience with ease.

Joan Almedilla commands the ear with some of the show’s finest vocals as Lady Thiang while an imposing Brian Rivera brings surprising sympathy to The Kralahome.

Manna Nichols struggled with the challenging soprano requirements of Tuptim, while Anthony Chan is a sympathetic Prince Chulalongkorn. Young Graham Montgomery struggles to make some his speech understood as Louis Leonowens, and Baylen Thomas delineates clearly the roles of Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsey.

In summation, the production looks and sounds gorgeous, as The King and I always does. Hummable tunes, quotable lines, and heartstring tugging make it a guaranteed hit.

Jose Llana stars as the autocratic but reform-minded King of Siam (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Jose Llana stars as the autocratic but reform-minded King of Siam (photo by Matthew Murphy)

But are we experiencing anything new? Why do we continue to produce The King and I?

The show was progressive by 1951 standards. Anna extols the virtues of Abraham Lincoln and the Harriet Beecher Stowe antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as she fights for the dignity and freedom of Tuptim, the King’s newest concubine. She demands that the King respect the women of the court and reject polygamy. She even promotes religious tolerance.

This would count as progressivism if Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of Anna was doing all this on principle. But she is not. She is chastising the Siamese for their barbarism while anglicizing them so she feels more “at-home.” She dresses them up like British nobles to avoiding potential colonization. The White Savior has proven that submitting to forced assimilation is easier than fighting an invasion. And by all means, give her the house you promised her. If Europeans are lacking anything, it is East Asian real estate.

The King is portrayed simultaneously as a misogynistic predator and an unsophisticated man-child and we applaud her refusal to submit. She replaces their maps and rejects their science. It is funny to us that the little angry Siamese man is confused by the Book of Genesis and that his English is so bad–a point reiterated every time we laugh at Anna’s mimicry of his speech.

But no amount of research can banish the fact that this is, and always has been a white men’s production of a white woman’s novel of a white woman’s interpretation of the Siamese people. Presented to and attended by predominantly white theatergoers.

So what do these perpetual re-mountings of The King and I have to offer us? The choreography of “The Little House of Uncle Thomas” [cue audience laugh at “Engrish” translation] is just a recycling of Jerome Robbins’s original Cambodian-inspired movements. I can enjoy all of the best elements by watching Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr spin in circles on celluloid and I can file 1956 under the “not knowing any better” heading.

But I cannot forgive the productions between 1973 and 2018.

This is a beautifully designed and staged production. The cast and crew, who maintain stamina for nearly three hours, are not the problem. Nor is Lincoln Center Theater. Nor are Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s us. We all know it’s racist but we don’t care because it’s pretty and we like that song. If we continue purchasing tickets to this minstrel show, companies will continue to produce it and venues across the globe will continue to house tours. And who can blame them? It’s like printing money.

In a couple of decades, the audience for this kind of show will be gone. Works like Dear Evan Hansen, Hamilton, and Fun Home are going to win out because they have something new to say.

The Cast of “The King and I” (photo by Matthew Murphy)

NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, June 10th, performance.

SECOND OPINION: June 7th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-THE-KING-I-National-Tour-at-Durham-Performing-Arts-Center-20170607 and June 1st BWW TV interview with actor Jose Llana, conducted by Jeffrey Kare: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-TV-Jose-Llana-of-THE-KING-I-National-Tour-20170601; June 7th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/entertainment/article154849904.html and May 30th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/entertainment/article153415609.html; and June 2nd Burlington, NC Times-News review by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/the-king-and-i-filled-with-richness/ and June 7th preview by Rachel Teseneer for “Teens & Twenties”: http://teensandtwenties.com/the-king-and-i-has-a-contemporary-feel/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the June 6th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/06/the-tony-winning-2015-broadway-revival-of-rodgers-hammersteins-the-king-and-i-will-play-dpac-june-6-11/.)

The Durham Performing Arts Center presents Rodgers & Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I at 7:30 p.m. June 7 and 8, 8 p.m. June 9, 2 and 8 p.m. June 10, and 1 and 6:30 8 p.m. June 11 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $35 and up. Click here for DPAC Special Offers.

BOX OFFICE:

DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), tickets@dpacnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/2212145.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919/281-0587, Groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.

SHOW: https://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/the-king-i and https://www.facebook.com/events/187617584976388/.

VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIgzBzp1Szg.

DPAC NEWS RELEASE: https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/the-king-and-i-on-sale-at-dpac-on-nov-12.

DPAC‘S 2016-17 “DREAM BIG” SUNTRUST BROADWAY SERIES: https://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/direct-from-new-york-nederlander-presents-suntrust-broadway-at-dpac-2016-2017-season.

THE TOUR: http://thekinganditour.com/, https://www.facebook.com/TheKingandIMusical, https://twitter.com/KingandIMusical, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCa1OgFoCh3rEo7h_Zj47D_Q.

TOUR CAST AND CREATIVE TEAM BIOS: http://thekinganditour.com/bios/.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.

DIRECTIONS: http://www.dpacnc.com/plan-your-visit/directions.

PARKING: http://www.dpacnc.com/plan-your-visit/parking.

OTHER LINKS:

The King and I (1951 Broadway and 1953 West End musical): http://www.lct.org/shows/king-and-i/ (official website for Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway production), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-king-and-i-5067 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King_and_I (Wikipedia).

Study Guide: http://www.lct.org/media/filer_public/bf/81/bf81c231-cb24-411c-8e85-59fc428ebbdc/lct_the-king-and-i_final.pdf (Lincoln Center Theater).

The King and I (1956 film): http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/80309/The-King-and-I/ (Turner Classic Movies page), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049408/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King_and_I_(1956_film) (Wikipedia).

Richard Rodgers (New York City composer, 1902-79): http://www.rnh.com/bio/175/Rodgers-Richard (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/richard-rodgers-8323 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0006256/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Rodgers (Wikipedia).

Oscar Hammerstein II (New York City lyricist and librettist, 1895-1960):http://www.rnh.com/bio/154/Hammerstein-II-Oscar (Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/oscar-hammerstein-ii-7965 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0358564/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Hammerstein_II (Wikipedia).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor, director, and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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