Review: 'The King and I,' Buell Theatre, through Jan. 14

Madeline Trumble as Anna and the Royal Children in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
At its deepest level, Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I, like South Pacific, is about a white western woman who finds herself in an exotic locale, fails to understand or respect cultural differences, tries to impose her own morality on others, and unwittingly causes irreparable harm to a soon-to-be-conquered indigenous people.

But there are also adorable children, a love story, memorable songs, spectacular choreography, and large helpings of humor to make the tragedy more palatable. 
Jose Llana as The King.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The King and I, playing through Jan. 14 at the Buell Theatre, is based on the updated 2015 Lincoln Center Theater revival of the classic musical. It doesn't shy away from the darker aspects of the story and is thoroughly entertaining without dipping too deeply into the reservoir of cuteness, schmaltz, or sentiment. The cast of mostly Asian performers adds an element of authenticity to the production but also highlights some of the weaknesses of the material.

Anna, a British widow in the age of Queen Victoria (Madeline Trumble) agrees to work for the King of Siam (Jose Llana), serving as the tutor for a handful of the monarch's wives and children. Lord only knows what has happened to the multiple wives and nearly six dozen children who displeased the king. Let's just say Amnesty International would have a field day reporting all the human rights abuses committed by this surprisingly likable dictator.

The King has the power of life and death over his subjects and wields it capriciously. He expects to be treated like a god. But he's also curious about the "scientific" approach to understanding the natural world and western style of leadership. The clash of ancient tradition and European modernity proves his undoing, and he dies, leaving a weak, immature Crown Prince (Anthony Chan) to face the onslaught of the French and British Empires, who are quickly divvying up the Far East for their own profit and exploitation.

Meanwhile, a slave/concubine (Q Lim) arrives as a gift to the King from Burma, but she loves another (Kavin Panmeechao). Their ill-fated affair proves to be the King's tipping point, immediately following an extraordinarily staged and palpably political balletic interpretation of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Much of the show is devoted to Anna and the King butting heads and eventually working out a truce based on mutual respect. She's a fighter and won't back down on her Christian British principles, even though they simply don't apply in Buddhist Siam (Thailand), where all men are not created equal, and where polygamy and slavery are the norms. 

Anna, with her hoop skirts and progressive attitudes, is an outsider, almost an interloper amongst the mostly-Asian company dressed in traditional Siamese clothing. The casting of this production emphasizes the "otherness" of Anna among the Siamese. So it's startling when the doomed Burmese couple sing songs that would fit right in with a Nelson Eddy/Jeanette Macdonald film set in the Yukon.

That's the flip side of ethnic-appropriate casting. Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical depiction of the Siamese is uncomfortably akin to Gilbert and Sullivan's treatment of the Japanese in The Mikado. The King of Siam is essentially a cultural descendant of Genghis Khan. He is a tyrant who is to be feared, even worshipped, but never truly loved.

Optimistic sentiments about "whistling a happy tune" and "getting to know you" aren't going to cut it. 

I found this production of The King and I to be tremendously thought-provoking, visually stunning, and beautifully performed. Recommended for all ages.

Tickets start at $30. Visit www.denvercenter.org for information and to purchase tickets.

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