The King and I is a poorly fleshed out version of the Sound of Music, except it is set in Siam, rather than Austria. Written also by Rogers and HammersteinThe King and I struggles to be as timelessly entertaining as their other shows. It’s the story of an English teacher, Anna (Laura Michelle Kelly), who moves to Siam (Modern day Thailand) to teach the harem and children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). Anna and the King clash over their cultural differences and eventually form something that is probably supposed to be a quirky, unlikely friendship. There are issues regarding the treatment of women, imperialism, and about what it really means to know something to be true, but instead of writing a heartbreaking or witty song to explain all that, Rogers and Hammerstein rely on songs with repetitive lyrics or notes too high to understand. The plot idea is relevant, but it lacks the sincerity to make this show into something intriguing.
There is only one romance in The King and I, between Tuptim (Manna Nichols), one of the King’s wives, and the man who brought her to Siam as a gift, Lun Tha (Kevin Panmeechao). Though their story is reminiscent of the tragic Romeo and Juliet, which usually is a hit with audiences, their songs are indistinguishable from one another and their few scenes together are brief and lacking the passion to make their forbidden love interesting. Manna Nichols is an excellent singer and actress, but she and Panmeechao simply couldn’t pull off their little sideshow romance. How they came to love each other and how Anna aids them in their forbidden affair are left undiscussed other than a mere mention followed by yet another boring, generically lyricized ballad.
The other would-be couple, as implied by the title of the show, is Anna and the King of Siam. The audience expects Anna and the King to abandon their dislike for one another because the flirty dialogue, lengthy dance scene, and jealousy displayed by the King all lead the audience to expect them to genuinely fall in love (despite the King’s harem), just like Maria and Captain Von Trapp. But even after all that build up, all it leads to is Anna saying, anti-climatically, “I really do like him”. It’s hard to make a play seem feminist when the main character beats his multitude of wives and forces everyone to kneel around him. We are supposed to understand why Anna cares for the King of Siam, but honestly, it never seems plausible.
If there is something worthy of praise in The King and I, it is the elaborate costumes created by Tony Award winner, Catherine Zuber. Anna’s full-skirted gowns and the gorgeous, glittering robes of the King’s wives are visually stunning, as well as true to the time period. Zuber’s work showcases the beauty of both cultures wonderfully.
In all other areas, there is a lot to improve about The King and I. The jokes are repetitive (example: the phrase “et cetera” is used at least three times in every single scene) and all the songs are written for high soprano’s and barely talented tenors. There isn’t much variety in the emotion, sound, or physicality of any of the performers.
In a world full of musicals like Hamilton, Next to Normal, and the Color Purple, the King and I attempts to come across as a societal commentary to inspire their younger audiences. The problems in The King and I still exist today, though differently manifested, but it doesn’t capture the same feeling of depth or inspiring urgency as the previously mentioned shows.