The Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” came to the Orpheum Theater this past Tuesday, but despite being a revival, the musical lacked some much needed reviving. “The King and I” originated as a movie in the 1950s and is set back in civil war era Siam. While some may argue that the message transcends cultures and time, nothing is more out of date than colonization and the stripping a nation of it’s culture. The production’s plot consists of Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) converting the King of Siam (Jose Llana) and his children to the “proper” English ways by stripping them of their traditions and values. I understand that many find this musical a classic and some might even deem it worthy of a Tony, but to make a plotline like this relevant to young people, the musical should’ve made stylistic choices to bring “King and I” into the 21st century.
The leading actors were strong, but lacked an X-factor that would set their performance apart from any other musical. Leonowens sang pleasantly, but her performance lacked originality; she didn’t do anything new or unexpected with her role. In fact, most actors and actresses played it very safe. That being said, Broadway actors don’t always have to interpret a role or base their performance in modern times. Many people, particularly over 50 years of age including my parents and aunt, come to see “King and I” to feel nostalgia or be reminded of a story they heard in their childhood. Even though the cookie cutter performances may have satisfied this demographic, not many youth are flocking to “King and I” for this very reason.
The production values were exactly what you’d expect, for better or for worse. Once again, I felt like there was an opportunity to take artistic risks and liberties with the set, and it felt like it could’ve come straight out of the movie. The actors themselves did some transitions with reflective fabric or scrim, which created something visual dynamic instead of the predictable automatic curtains. Transitions were smooth, and the dropdown columns and vines that came in at certain points of the musical helped add legitimacy and drama to the storytelling. The lighting, however, was a little overdramatic at times and made me feel like I was about to faint. When the King of Siam got upset with other characters, which was more frequent thank one would think, all of the lights on stage turned the entire stage from yellow to orange to red. This takes the audience out of the story and makes them want to take an aspirin.
“King and I” had redeemable moments—the sleeveless Asian men dancing—but the show lacked its proclaimed revival. Maybe I don’t appreciate this classic sexist tale of colonization, but if art made us all feel the same way, it wouldn’t be half as interesting. Perhaps I didn’t love the revival of “King and I,” but at least it leaves Minneapolis in a week.