Review: “The King & I” is a Tale for Modern Times

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Broadway Grand Rapids' production of
Broadway Grand Rapids' production of "The King & I"

“The King and I” is one of those musicals that’s almost as old as I am…and yet it manages to tell a story that echoes sentiments as current as 2018.

The Broadway Grand Rapids tour, which opened Tuesday at DeVos Performance Hall, is the Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher that won four Tony Awards in 2015 including Best Revival of a Musical.

One of the things that keeps the 1951 show evergreen is a score by Broadway’s favorite sons, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. It’s filled with memorable songs such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Set in 1860s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of a widowed English teacher, Anna Leonowens, who is hired by the King of Siam to teach English and other subjects to the King’s many wives and children as part of the King’s plan to modernize his country. The arrogant king and strong-willed Anna lock horns from their first meeting, mostly because Anna says the King promised her a separate house and the King wants her and her son Louis to live in the palace. Nevertheless, she persists. (Sound familiar?)

"The King & I" opened Tuesday at DeVos Performance Hall
“The King & I” opened Tuesday at DeVos Performance Hall

When the boat brings the latest newspapers from England, the King is incensed by fake news that calls him a barbarian.  Anna reads the story and says it’s a lie. “It’s a false lie,” the King bellows. (Heard that lately?)

The King insists that the classes be “scientific” since that term was just coming into vogue in the 1860s. But like the naysayers of the new millennium, the King’s kids question whether the world is really round as the teacher says or if it is carried on the back of a turtle as tradition taught. Snowfall is also hard to comprehend for kids who know only the tropics.

Jose Llana does a fantastic job as the sputtering, bare-chested monarch. Elena Shaddow is well cast as the tough, but more dignified Anna, who is not about to back down from the King.  Both have rich singing voices. Some of the most fun scenes, however, are when the King insists that no one’s head should be higher than the King’s and Anna has to sit and slouch lower and lower to comply.

Among my favorite parts of the show are the many Asian dance scenes, especially the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. These moments transcend typical Broadway musical for the flavor of another time and place.

The sets are very dramatic from the gorgeous sunset when Anna’s ship arrives, to the deeply pleated dark blue curtain backdrop for the ballet scene. The palace set feels enormous with a huge wall in the background, tile floor and moving columns that make the halls seem endless.

The story is based on a 1944 novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” which was inspired by the memoirs of the real Anna Leonowens who was a governess for the children of King Mongcut of Siam. The 1956 movie, and all subsequent versions, is banned in Thailand because it is perceived as making fun of the monarchy. The historical King Mongcut was a wise, cultured man who spoke many languages, not the half-naked tyrant depicted in the books, movies and musical.

In the story, Anna supposedly helps the King overcome charges of being a barbarian by hosting a British diplomat for a European-style dinner. For the event, Anna dresses the King’s wives in the hooped skirts popular in the West at the time. But in the musical, her effort is a humorous fiasco. If anything it makes fun of Western fashion more than Eastern culture. The same is true of the dance depicting “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the barbaric custom of American slavery.

But “The King and I” doesn’t pretend to be historically accurate, nor is it primarily making commentary on Eastern or Western culture. It is the powerful tale of unresolved sexual tension. There’s an attraction between these two that neither will admit nor act upon. Generation’s watch, waiting for a kind word, a hesitant smile, that hand on the waist as the dance begins.

The King & I” runs through Sunday, June 10 at DeVos Performance Hall.

*Photos courtesy of Broadway Grand Rapids

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