I have never felt sympathy for a king, but this show made my heart go out to the wealthiest, most powerful man in his country. The King & I (by the transcendent Rodgers & Hammerstein) has won Tony’s for Best Musical and Best Revival (twice!), and has been produced in nearly every English-speaking country since its musical debut in 1951. Based on the true story of Anna Leonowens, the governess for the King of Siam (now Thailand) from 1862-1867, this is a multifaceted tale of compromise and love that can be understood across generations and geographic borders. Although this work romanticized the lives of once-living people, this production takes great care to bring truth and humanity into this story and fight the inherent infantilization of the Siamese people found in this show’s book.
Despite being a classic white savior story at heart, (where the “backwards/barbaric” people of an Eastern culture are “civilized” by a white person and taught Western culture as an act of charity) this show was really well done. Although the script itself did not exactly place the ways of Siam in high regard, this production had a predominantly Asian cast that created strong, lovable, entirely human characters out of people that could have been flat, harmful stereotypes of Asian people practicing their culture. I trust that this show could have become racist very fast had such care not been taken by the cast and the director, Bartlett Sher, to keep this musical palatable to the modern audience.
The King of Siam (portrayed by Jose Llana,) perfectly displayed this defiance against the antiquated perceptions on Asian culture shown by the original script. Llana showed the King as sharp-witted, stubborn, and dynamic as a ruler, as a husband, and as a father. Llana made the King a tangible human being, more than just a charity case for Anna Leonowens to drag into Western culture. Filling the shoes of the charismatic kings before him, Llana had the crowd laughing with nearly every line, and his skilled musicianship only added to his performance.
Furthermore, Kevin Panmeechao’s performance of Lun Tha, the lover of Tuptim (he King’s Burmese slave and soon-to-be wife) was equally impressive despite being a much smaller role. Panmeechao’s vocal tone was absolutely breathtaking throughout his musical numbers. There was not a single lackluster phrase or note, but his performance in “We Kiss in a Shadow” was particularly moving, nearly pulling me to tears.
Lastly, the care shown for the culture of Siam/Thailand is evident in the clothing and set of the musical; The use of Buddhist idols in the sets depicted Theravada Buddhism in the country, the use of sabais and other culturally accurate dress for the Siamese people, along with countless other details I probably missed, all showed the importance placed on respecting the people of Thailand.
Overall, this production of the King & I took great care to make this the most culturally accurate and emotionally relevant show, through acting/music, setting, and costuming, and it succeeded.