‘The King & I’ has some lessons for today’s world
It’s fascinating, at times, how a story can travel across centuries and remain relevant long after the characters and the world they lived in are gone. In this case, the musical “The King & I” — now playing in an opulent touring production at The Denver Center — stands as a curious work of stage art that, while dated, still hits plenty of the hot buttons of 2018: sexism, male domination, slavery, colonialism, culture clashes and reluctance to change with the times.
Oh, and there’s dancing of course. Lots of dancing, fabulous costumes, elaborate sets and a Rodgers & Hammerstein book and score that tries to bridge the gap between 1860s Bangkok and American audiences of the 1950s, when it was first staged.
Based on the true story of a British school teacher brought to the court of the King of Siam in 1862 to teach the royal children, “The King & I” was a huge, if unlikely, hit on Broadway when it premiered in 1951 (Rodgers and Hammerstein both worried it would flop in comparison to their earlier hit “South Pacific.”)
The touring production now playing through Jan. 14 at the Buell Theater is a lavish endeavor, announcing its grandeur in the opening seconds when a large wooden ship sails onto the stage bearing the school teacher, Anna (Madeline Trumble) and her son. All of the sets are enormous, ranging the king’s palace featuring a colossal statues of the Buddha to cleverly moving columns and hanging ferns that quickly slide into position to establish new locations.
While “The King & I” is fun to look at, it may not be the best musical to introduce someone to musical theater. The first act takes some time to establish the story line, and the songs don’t have the catchy familiarity of many other Rodgers & Hammerstein productions. Some may recognize “Getting to Know You” or “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” but Richard Rodgers’ push to fuse Asian and Western music into something he thought Americans could enjoy had the effect of narrowing his options.
But while few of the numbers soared into the realm of Broadway hits, the story itself is unusual enough to hold our attention. Anna and the King (Jose Llana) spend much of the time at each other’s throats, with nothing but the future of Siam (Thailand) at stake. With European interests closing in on neighboring countries, the King wants to modernize his country to keep from being overrun. In the feisty widow Anna, he finds an ally who can help push him in the right direction, but she’s got to contend with centuries of tradition the King is reluctant to give up.
There’s the haram, for starters. With a dozen or so wives and scores of children, the King really enjoys life at home. Slaves are hard to let go as well, particularly one beautiful “gift” from the king of Burma named Tuptim (Q Lim). Her quest to break the chains and run away with her lover forms a big part of the story and leads to the climax that forces the King to reckon with his contradictory goals: moving into the future while hanging onto the “barbarian” ways of the past.
We can see many contemporary faces in the King, ranging from Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein as exploiters of women to any despot clinging to power in the belief that his way is the only way. Anna’s success at convincing the King to let go of some of his divine-rights beliefs is both his salvation and his undoing.