THE KING AND I, by Laurie Peckins
‘The King and I’ premiered in the James Theatre on Broadway in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Bryner in the original lead roles. It was the largest live production with a cast of 51 actors/dancers and 29 musicians. The percussion section had over 30 instruments with only one percussionist. This was the sixth collaboration from Rogers and Hammerstein. The Ambassador Theatre Group is the top live theatre company taking The King and I on a revival tour since 2015. Broadway Across America along with The Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas present a revival tour with the Ambassador Theatre Group and NETworks presentations. Under the direction of Bartlett Sherr this production has received four Tony Awards since 2015 and great success.
The lead roles played by Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly were excellent.
The costumes and sets were elegant with several major scene changes. The choreography originally by Jerome Robbins was graceful and enchanting, especially in the two show-stoppers with the children.
The musical is based on a novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. The story begins with the arrival of Mrs. Anna Leonowens and her son to a new country with the promise of a new job and a home. As Anna embarks upon her new responsibility to teach all 37 of King Mongkut’s children, she sings ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ to help calm her apprehension about the challenges she will encounter in her new life. After some initial formalities, the royal children arrive and enchant the audience with the ‘March of the Siamese children’.
The political and cultural differences between the King and Mrs. Anna were the prominent focus of the story. Mixed in with the fun and banter between the King and Anna was the outrage of an educated and modern-thinking woman accepting the traditions of polygamy and oppression by a “barbaric” King in a powerful monarchy in the 1860’s. The King had summoned Mrs. Leonowens not only to teach his children, but to help improve his image in the world, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
In the classroom Anna sings ‘Getting to Know You’ which represents the inevitable influence and cultural changes that will result from Anna’s presence and her modern ideas and worldly knowledge.
Tuptim enters to offer Lua Tha to the King as his newest gift from Burma, to become his 9th wife. As the scene ends, Anna sings Hello Young Lovers. In the next scene, Tuptim and Lua Tha sing We Kiss in a Shadow to introduce the audience to their secret and forbidden relationship.
‘Western People Funny’ opens Act 2 with the King poking fun at all of our western customs and attire. “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is the result of the King demanding the children be taught European traditions after hearing a rumor that he is considered a barbarian. Sir Edward Ramsey arrives from England for the play within a play. The references to President Lincoln and Uncle Tom’s Cabin represent the curiosity and playful reluctance the King has to the abolition of slavery and western ideology. The mention of France colonizing Cambodia emphasizes the independence and territorial importance of Siam remaining the only territory in the region that was never colonized by the Europeans.
The reprise of ‘Hello Young Lovers ‘foreshadows the upcoming conflict of indescretion and the death of Tuptim. As the King and Anna end the playful
‘Shall We Dance’, the King is informed of the death of Tuptim. As the King orders Lua to a whipping, Anna calls the King a “barbarian” and storms out of the palace as she cannot compromise her values and work for the King any longer.
Months later, with the news of the King’s declining health and looming death, Anna returns to the palace to see the King. The reprise of ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ symbolizes the apprehension of the eldest son who becomes the new king. As a result of Anna’s lessons and western influence, some interesting cultural changes occur, which leaves us with a sense of hope for the newly transformed leader of the Siamese people.