By: Shari Archinoff
Imagine yourself on a boat, pulling along the shore of Bangkok in 1862. You’re a windowed mother of a young son, about to embark on a new job – schoolteacher for the children of the King of Siam (currently known as Thailand). This is where The King and I begins its story; the titular “I” being the character of Anna Leonowens.
The classic musical, written by the brilliant, multiple-award winning duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, is, at its heart, a tale of clashing cultures. British born Anna has lived in the Eastern hemisphere most of her life, but only in countries under the British rule. Siam, much like its King, is still fiercely independent and lives by its own rules. Or rather, the rules of the King – a headstrong man who believes women are beneath him, and only exist to pleasure him and bear his children. When the equally headstrong Anna enters his life, he’s forced to reconsider this view.
This new production of the King re-envisions the classic with a little more cultural sensitivity and nuance than when the show was originally performed in 1951, but without sacrificing the story that so many people are familiar with. The lush set design and costumes help to bring viewers into the world of 19th century Siam. The cast embodies the characters with heart and humour, portraying them as fully rounded people, not just cartoonish stereotypes.
Actress Elena Shaddow’s soaring soprano voice anchors the show as Anna, who shoulders the responsibility of performing some of the musical’s most familiar songs, “Getting to Know You” and “Whistle a Happy Tune”. She finds a worthy stage partner in Jose Llana, who brings a sense of vulnerability to the often cocky King. The rest of the cast, who more than holds their own, features Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, Brian Rivera as an ambassador from Burma, and Q Lim as Tuptim, a young girl given to the king as a “gift”.
While the King and I certainly has its laugh-out-loud moments, I found that much like the Sound of Music (Rogers and Hammerstein’s other musical about a fiercely independent woman caring for the children of a bullish man), there’s something much darker lurking underneath the happy tunes. While Anna is surprisingly feminist for the time the show was written, Tuptim is essentially a slave. She was taken from her home country and forced to marry the King against her own desires. When she tries to escape, she’s beaten with a whip – onstage - something that could definitely be disturbing or hard to explain to younger theatregoers. This moment creates a rift between Anna and the King, shortly after they had finally found their way to friendship.
I was somewhat surprised that in the era of political correctness and the reinvigorated fight for gender equality that the King and I would still have its place in the theatre world, and yet there are some lessons that can be learned that are relevant to the times we live in. There’s the idea that no matter where we’re from, we’re all more alike than different, the idea that everyone, regardless of status, deserves to be treated with dignity, and that no matter who you are, there’s still always more to learn.
Ultimately, I think the show finds redemption in the end, just as the King does. When the young Prince of Siam announces his modern plans and intentions for the future of Siam, we learn that many of the King’s philosophies are going to be left behind. This moment serves as a lesson for how to view the show itself: we can’t ignore the dark spots in the past just because they’re uncomfortable; we have to uncover them so we can learn and move forward.
The King and I is on at the Princess of Wales Theatre until August 12th. Tickets are available at mirvish.com or at the box office.