Much of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s body of work is pretty light stuff, but occasionally the fluffy mid-century musicals they produced touched on some serious themes — the threat of fascism in The Sound of Music, to note one famous example. Perhaps its the tenor of the times, but I couldn’t help but look beyond the song and dance numbers this week as I watched the national touring company of The King and I take the stage at the Providence Performing Arts Center (appearing now-Nov. 6).
To be sure, this is at heart a love story — love of country, forbidden love, paternal love, and — in the case of the King of Siam and the English schoolteacher who comes to his palace to tutor his children — unfulfilled love. A hand on the hip and a few twirls around the dance floor is as intimate it gets between these two, but the moment is a musical highlight of the show (“Shall We Dance?”) along with other tunes that doubtless will have you saying (unless you’re a big fan of musical theater already), “Oh — that’s where that song is from!” Primarily, I’m referring to “Getting to Know You,” but even the King’s main solo, “It’s a Puzzlement,” pinged childhood memories for me.
But here’s a story that also has some significant feminist undertones, as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Laura Michelle Kelly) chafes under the dismissive treatment of Jose Llana’s King of Siam, whose brood includes multiple wives and even more children. The evils of slavery are also explored, largely through a subplot involving a love affair between one of the king’s wives and a companion from Burma and a goofy staged play-within-a-play based on Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And central to the plot is the King’s desire to use Western education delivered by Anna to his children and himself as a means of preventing Siam being swallowed up by one of the European imperialist nations of the 1850s.
If you’ve seen the movie version of The King and I starring Yul Brynner, you’ll be familiar with the basic storyline as presented at PPAC. Unlike, say, The Lion King, the staging of The King and I doesn’t suffer by comparison to its Broadway iteration: there are a couple of big props, like a steamboat and a statue of Buddha, but overall the minimalist sets work just fine. The acting is uniformly excellent: Kelly shines as Anna in stage presence and voice, although occasionally the audio was a little hard to hear. Llana commands his scenes as a monarch should, and both actors display a fine comedic touch in a scene where the King demands that Anna never hold her head higher than his. It’s one of the best parts of the play. The child actors, notably Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, were flawless and endearing.
The second act is slowed down a bit by the extended Uncle Tom’s Cabin play, which sets up the dramatic revelation of slave girl Tuptim’s attempted escape with paramour Lun Tha. And, as been noted over the years about this play, the ending is fairly abrupt, with the King dying just as his son begins some of the reforms promoted by Anna. Nonetheless, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of live professional theater at Rhode Island’s most iconic venue. Surprisingly modern in places, The King and I remains a classic of 20th century theater that stays true to its timeless themes of love and devotion, transcending cultures.
(Photos by Matthew Murphy)