On Tuesday February 28, 2017, the Lincoln Center Theater Production of the 2015 Tony winning revival of "The King and I" on tour premiered at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. In this old story western and eastern culture clash represented with simplicity through a English governess and her experiences.
Laura Michelle Kelly does well in the role of Anna Leonowens, even though singing with a British accent puts one in a treacherous world of singing a host of ugly vowels. Jose Llana is an interesting King Mongkut his voice was true, but his acting too purposely comedic to not make the king a caricature of a man. We indeed made strides since for a while only white actors got to play the role of the King of Siam, including the 1953 Hollywood adaptation with Yul Brenner. However, still a lot needs to be done as Scarlett Johansson just got to be an "Asian" lead in the "Ghost in the Shell". Stereotyping and racism somehow cannot be helped in this production. Watching this apparent clash of eastern and western cultures one has to navigate a narrow line between enjoying the story set in early 1860s, written for Broadway in 1951, based on a 1944 novel, while putting it in the proper historic context. In the original story Anna is actually half Indian, half British. It is the King Mongkut's open mindedness that brings Anna to Siam to teach his court English and the western ways of the European culture encroaching upon their south-east Asian world. Another issue is Anna's widowhood and a special position it allows her in the world she represents. Had she still been married and came to Siam in the 1860s, all she could have been was her husband's possession with nobody being interested in her views on slavery, morality of having multiple wives, or how deep kowtowing is appropriate, just like all King Mongkut's wives. While the intent of the production may have not been overtly racist treating a topic like colonialism with careless humor without being a comedy is insulting. In laying blame, it lies with the medium and text. The King and I came out in the 1950s and it shows. Moreover, it is easier to tackle heavy topics like this in a doorstop book rather than a glossy musical. Nonetheless, Rodgers & Hammerstein's music is passable in its age, especially in "Getting to Know You". The only other good singer than Anna and the King was Thiang. Like Anna she was limited in her singing by an accent, but past that her voice was good. Last, amidst the obscenity at least the costumes and set were beautiful. Moving vines, columns, and a dyed scrim were an economic and beautiful choice.
Overall, this is a show for the whiter crowds in life. The rich history behind the story should not be forgotten, but its genre should be and has been. Veering from comedy to drama to trying to make some sort of deeper theme just doesn't work especially with such heavy topics as sexism, white over ethnic culture assimilation, slavery, corporal punishment, and autocracies. The King and I has to decide about a lot of things and picking out whether to be a comedy, or a deep drama would certainly help.