You have to wonder why Opera Australia decided that The King and I was ripe for a revival. Of all Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, it’s probably the one with the most obvious problems in its representation of race.
The King and I is based upon Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King; which is based upon the real life Anna Leonowens’ memoirs. It covers the cultural clashes between the King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) and the English governess he hired to teach his many children. Mongkut famously embraced Western culture and philosophy, and The King and I covers all the wonderful new things the awfully confused people of Siam learnt from the visiting Westerners. The musical may well have things to say that are relevant to today’s audience, but Opera Australia’s production doesn’t show that.
To accuse Rodgers and Hammerstein of racism is a little absurd; they wrote about other cultures because they were intrigued and inspired by them and wrote the Pulitzer-winning South Pacific as a vigorous anti-racism statement. But the 1940s and ‘50s were a long time ago.
To make those statements, they traded on the stereotypes of other races that they knew from Western culture, and it takes a deft hand to wipe over these problems and cut away at the stereotypes to get to the heart of the piece. Bartlett Sher did so with his 2008 Broadway revival of South Pacific (which was Opera Australia’s last Rodgers and Hammerstein production) by giving its most troublesome character, Bloody Mary, complex motivations and a complete character arc.
British director Christopher Renshaw, who created this production of The King and I in Australia back in 1991, had lived in Thailand for a time when he created the production, and wanted to create an “authentic Thai experience”. Although this production looks authentic and uses authentic language, imagery, religious references and movement, it doesn’t manage to elevate the piece. The New York Post claimed Renshaw’s production was a King and I for the 21st century when it opened on Broadway in 1996. But even 1996 was a long time ago.
Renshaw’s production is gorgeously constructed, moving with pace and bringing to life the moments of intimacy as well as spectacle. Even if it never quite ignites, it’s a tasteful and faithful rendering of the piece. Brian Thomson’s lavish sets are as evocative as the incense that’s burning as the audience enters the theatre, and Roger Kirk’s costumes are almost garishly sumptuous. I wouldn’t be surprised if fifty percent of the design budget went towards sequins and diamantes.
Lisa McCune’s Anna and Jason Scott Lee’s King are both a gift to this production. McCune out-Deborah Kerrs Deborah Kerr with her dignified, loving Anna, and delivers a solid but delicate vocal performance. She again picks up the dramatic slack for some of her co-stars with her “reactions” to everything happening around her.
Scott Lee brings the boyish playfulness of the King and executes the comedic moments perfectly, even if the vocals are a little weak. He and McCune are in step with each other, and it’s in their one-on-one scenes that the dramatic meat of the production lies.
Shu-Cheen Yu sings arguably the best song from the show, Something Wonderful, as head wife Lady Thiang with determination and a full, colourful vocal tone. Adrian Li Donni and Jenny Liu sing sweetly as the “young lovers” Lun Tha and Tuptim, even if there’s not a great deal of chemistry between them.
The biggest problem is in the way that the ensemble has been directed. The ensemble members aren’t given the scope to create their own individual characters in any way, which just reinforces that the production works with a single image of who the Thai people are. The chorus has a single reaction to everything that happens around them, which is usually just confusion or fear. There’s no problem with comedy arising out of cultural clashes and confusion, but almost every laugh here comes when the Thai characters fail to understand some Western concept. But the King’s children are ridiculously cute.
The highlight of the production is Jerome Robbins’ ballet for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, stunningly recreated by Susan Kikuchi. And there’s also magic when the orchestra, under Peter Casey’s baton, strikes up and McCune and Scott Lee enthusiastically polka around the stage in Shall We Dance. For anybody who grew up with The King and I, or anybody discovering the piece for the first time, it’s these moments that transport you to a place of joy and adventure. I’m just not sure those moments are quite enough.