I enjoyed a whirl through romantic fantasy last night watching The King and I at Drury Lane, Oakbrook, feeling uncomfortable all the while that the show should probably not have been staged. The musical remains deeply problematic and this production does not address the white-savior narrative nor reductive voyeuristic Orientalism enough to tip the balance from cringe to fun.
That said, the audience seemed from my seat to be at least half non-white/Asian, and apparently loved what they saw. The cast was majority Asian, as were the set designers, one of whom had even worked at the Royal Palace in Thailand, so brought authentic visual effects to this version of the 1952 musical.
Audience members are likely not seeking a nuanced analysis of nineteenth century race relations. We come primarily for the music, which was dazzling and enchanting. Props to the music director Tim Laciano, orchestra and wonderfully strong vocals across the cast. Betsy Morgan brought arresting presence to Anna, helped by her stage-hogging crinolines, and beautiful tenderness and humor to her arias.
Adam Jacob’s King is funny and brings moments of pathos to his predicament. He is, as ever, in fine voice, but the broken English all the Asian characters adopted took away from any regal authority he might have otherwise communicated, appearing instead a figure of fun for our Western gaze.
A big issue with empathizing with any character is their two dimensionality. I hoped a contemporary production might have found ways to build depth and nuance into at least Anna, the King, Lady Thiang and Tuptim. As it is, they appeared with their didactic role firmly to the fore - Anna as bringer of western modernity to save the barbarian king, King as comedic despot struggling with the ‘puzzlement’ of old/new, East/West pulls. Lady Thinag as adoring, submissive wife and Tuptim as if from another story entirely demanding an end to slavery, patriarchy and societal constraint.
In a refreshingly truthful moment, the lead children (Anna’s son Louis played by a delightfully clear-voiced and guileless Braden Crothers and Prince Chulalongkorn, given full teen ambivalence by Matthew Uzarraga) bring embodied fury in defense of their respective parent rather than yet more heavy-handed cultural difference repartee.
In a bizarre opening to his Director’s Note, Alan Paul declares his view ‘our differences, more so than what we have in common, define us.’ This production then, never set out to challenge the original’s lazy culture clash jokes by bringing out a more modern trope of shared humanity outweighing outward appearances or cultural upbringing. If his vision of the show was to comment on the entrenched political lines ravaging American society today as he implies, then it sadly did not come across.
It’s a shame as the real Anna on whose life the novel and musical are based, was herself of mixed race and passed as White while in Asia, but perhaps would not have done in in the Wales she claimed to hail from. This hidden racial identity and her feelings of both white privilege in passing for impoverished English gentry in the caste-heavy India of her birth and her looking down on those darker skinned and less refined-European than herself, make for a much more interesting version of this story.
The ballet, with beautiful Thai shadow puppetry, was exquisitely executed and the most engaging piece of the evening. It is like the play within the play in Hamlet ‘wherein to catch the conscience of a King’ and has similarly tragic consequences, Kings not liking to be shown their cruelties.
The sparse and open set (intended to communicate Thai Buddhist temple) gives the spotlight to the beautiful costumes by Izumi Inaba, their deep and bright silks, colors moving as if animated.
All in all, a sumptuous and well executed production of a classic that for me raises more uncomfortable questions about representation than humming my way home could quiet.
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