Let’s not look at all the ways a 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical misses the mark when measured against today’s views on imperialism, toxic masculinity and diversity. What can’t be challenged is the power of the music. This is what the producers at the Lincoln Center were counting on when they revived The King and I in 2015.
The show is an homage to the original stage and film production with Yul Brynner in the role of the petulant king and Gertrude Lawrence, then Deborah Kerr as the redoubtable Anna Leonowens. The book was based on the novel The King and I by Margaret Landon. It was inspired by a memoir by Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian teacher, recalling her time as governess to the children of the Siamese King Mongut in the 1860s.
Bartlett Sher, resident director at Lincoln Center, earned a Tony Award for best direction of a musical for this production and it’s easy to see why. While anyone trying to fill Yul Brynner’s curly-toed shoes has a tough job to do, Pedro Ka’awaloa’s “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera”s ring true. His stature is not as commanding as might be expected, but he nails the king as a case of arrested development who nevertheless had a desire to lead his country into modernity, if not reduce his absolute power. Ka’awaloa’s voice is not as strong as some of the others’, but he doesn’t have to sing much.
The women characters own this musical. Angela Baumgardner wears Anna Leonowens enormous hoop skirts very well, and has the voice, the hauteur and the love of children to make her governess come alive. She gets the opening number of the show, still on deck of the ship that is bringing Anna and her son Louis (Hayden Bercy) into Bangkok. “I Whistle a Happy Tune” is a full-throated anthem to female independence and courage, qualities that make The King and I a proto-feminist creation. Every woman here surmounts her straitened circumstances.
Paulina Yeung almost steals the show in the role of Tuptim, the slave girl gifted to the king of Siam by the king of Burma. She is secretly in love with Lun Tha, a scholar working in the palace on the design for a temple. Yeung’s rich, warm rendition of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” reveals her background as an opera singer.
Deanna Choi makes a dignified senior wife, Lady Thiang, especially singing “Something Wonderful.” She complements the unbridled playfulness of the royal children (a sampling of the king’s 67 offspring), delightfully portrayed in their topknots and purple silks by CJ Fernanado, Anjali Kanter, Kylie Kuioka, Linder Sutton, Kayla Teruel, Hiroko Uchino and Eliot Waldvogel.
Bern Tan takes on the part of the king’s righthand man/enforcer Kralahome and is suitably forceful, overshadowing the king when they occupy the same space. The role of British diplomat Sir Edward Ramsey is a placeholder for British imperialism and male dominance, but Stanton Morales is a good foil for the king and opens up the possibility that Anna has fallen in love with her king.
No sensible choreographer would mess with Jerome Robbins’s original choreography and Christopher Gattelli doesn’t. He enhances the lively production numbers with new moves and preserves the rollicking polka between king and governess, danced to the music of a nine-piece orchestra conducted by David Aaron Brown. This production of The King and I gets its dazzle from the Michael Yeargan’s economic, Buddhist-oriented set design and Catherine Zuber’s costumes, which so well illustrate the east-meets-west theme of the play.
Where this revival of The King and I excels is not in the reinforcement of identity politics but in its honouring of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s intent to show we are all the same under the skin.
The King and I
By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Presented by Broadway in Victoria at the Royal Theatre, Victoria until January 6
Photo of Angela Baumgardner as Anna Leonowens with the royal children by Matthew Murphy