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Review: A beautiful revival of The King and I still raises questions of appropriation

Elena Shaddow and the Royal Children in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I.

Jeremy Daniel/Mirvish

  • The King and I
  • Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
  • Directed by Bartlett Sher
  • Starring Jose Llana, Elena Shaddow and Q Lim
  • At the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto until Aug. 12

rating

No matter how you square it, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is a problematic product of the 1950s. The nearly three-hour musical tells the story of a refined Victorian schoolteacher who goes to Siam to teach the kingdom the civilized ways of the West. The original 1951 creative team, composer, librettist, director and choreographer were all Westerners. Audiences were getting a white man’s take on a “foreign” culture, an uncritical depiction of colonialism that exoticized a faraway land.

So despite widespread acclaim and four Tony Awards, I was skeptical about the 2015 Lincoln Center revival, which opened at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre on Thursday night. There’s been something of a critical consensus that, in the hands of talented Broadway director Bartlett Sher, the musical has cast off its offensive exoskeleton and revealed a much more nuanced, progressive core. Rather than read as a condescending fetishization of the East, it’s been said that Sher’s production is about tyranny and prejudice – both racism and sexism – and grazes timely themes such as human-trafficking and feminist resistance.

For the most part, I wholeheartedly agree. The national touring cast pulled off a beautiful, memorable show full of genuine characterizations and emotional sensitivity. Sher has gone to great lengths to depict 19th-century Siam the way it actually was, as opposed to remounting a kind of imperialist fictionalization. The elegant sets (designed by Michael Yeargan) conjure a fertile sense of place. We get the ochre-hazed frenzy of Bangkok’s port at sunset, then a big golden statue of Buddha inside the palace. These designs are bolstered by traditional, pared-down costumes by Catherine Zuber and atmospheric lighting by Donald Holder.

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The production does its most powerful revisionism in the way it turns a critical eye on the West. When a communiqué arrives from Burma revealing Britain’s colonialist designs, the King (Jose Llana) and Anna (Elena Shaddow) devise a charm offensive to show the envoys that Siam is an enlightened nation in no need of diplomatic protection. Anna insists on dressing the court’s women in the fashions of Victorian England, and their absolute bewilderment with the ungainly hoop skirts and suffocating corsets lends wryness to the musical number Western People Funny. Anna explains to the King that the large skirts symbolize a protective territory around a woman’s body. “I didn’t know Western men were so aggressive,” he says.

Sher’s adaptation also constructs an interesting axis of female power. Both Anna and the trafficked Burmese sex slave Tuptim (Q Lim) resist the King’s authority in their own ways. For Anna, this means her constant, patient reassertion that she is not his servant and that women are men’s equals in all domains. For Tuptim, it means calling out the King’s despotism through an elaborate play within a play – her reworking of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Reimagined as a 15-minute dance piece (originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins and updated by Christopher Gattelli), The Small House of Uncle Thomas is dazzling and imagistic, replete with traditional Southeast Asian masks and the kinetic flourishes of Thai dancing.

One of the production’s greatest joys is Shaddow’s magnetic performance as the compassionate and principled schoolteacher. Her unerringly truthful acting is buoyed by a lovely and expressive soprano voice. She runs an impressive gamut of emotion when ruminating on romance in Hello, Young Lovers and on mentorship and friendship in the much-hummed Getting to Know You. Llana is charismatic as the King and displays fine comedic timing, but the role’s naïveté smacks of Western superiority. Can we really believe that a Thai emperor would seek political advice from a Welsh governess? Are the words of white people so automatically endowed importance? The musical has been banned in Thailand since its American premiere – in moments like these, you can see why.

If this is the modern-minded production it purports to be, where are the Thai and Southeast Asian artists on the creative team? Countless essays could be written on the ethics of the show – on whether the jurisdiction of creative licence has extended too far and without enough inclusivity. It’s worth noting that all the (positive) reviews I came across were written by white men. When Anna’s criticism of the King’s polygamy takes on feminist undertones, I marvelled at the intersectional conflict of gender and culture, while feeling a bit uncomfortable. I’m still thinking about my discomfort today.

If you’re a Rodgers and Hammerstein fan, go test your own feelings about culture, gender, point of view and appropriation. You’ll want to give those feelings some careful thought.


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