The Staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I

The King and I performed at The Lincoln Center Theater
The King and I performed at The Lincoln Center Theater. Used with permission.

I had been looking forward to seeing The King and I directed by Andre Bishop at the Lincoln Center Theater all year. When it was announced that Ken Wantanabe was going to play the role as king, I was excited. I looked forward to seeing him in the role as king. I, however, did not know that he had just ended his last performance of the show on July 12th, and that Jose Llana, from The Public Theater’s Here Lies Love ( I did not see it) would be taking over the role. He, to my surprise, was stunning as king, despite lacking the traditional stature that one typically associates with a king. Kelli O’hara, who plays the role of Anna, won her first Tony Award for her performance.  Ruthie Ann Miles,( also from Here Lies Love) the Tony award winner for her portrayal of Lady Thiang, plays a genteel, and at times austere (her interaction with Tuptim shows her austerity) royal wife.  She also sings beautifully with an excellent range. A colleague and friend, who saw The King and I a few days before me, sent me an email to me about the performance.  His email caused me to reflect on something that I might not have thought about otherwise about the performance. He said, “When I first saw the show as a boy, I was at a small community theater production, and I identified with the kids.  When I saw it again in Atlanta in my 20’s, I identified with the young lovers.  When I directed it at my school in my 40’s, I identified with Anna. But at Lincoln Center I felt the greatest connection to the King, whose position required him to appear calm and confident, but who struggled constantly with doubts about how to do the right thing.” Thus, as I began to watch the staging of this performance, those ideas were percolating within my brain. I saw the film version many years ago, but it did not prepare me for the: stunning choreography, the royally staged set, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music, Thai costumes, well-developed script, acting gesticulations, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (from the show). And, what I learned from the performance will stay with me forever.

Kelli, O'hara as Anna Used with Permission
Kelli, O’hara as Anna
Used with Permission
Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang.   Used with Permission

The King and I, set in the early 1860’s, and based on the novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, tells the story of a strong-willed resolute English school teacher who goes to Thailand to teach young children English. She becomes acquainted with the equally headstrong King of Siam, who hired her, and who has a harem and countless (although he counts them) children. The King worries about colonization from the French and from the British (Thailand is the only southeastern Asian country to not be colonized), as well as how other nations perceive him. He gets word that world leaders see him as a barbarian, and he, therefore, asks Anna to help him, his royal wives, and his children learn some European customs and behaviors so that he will appear less barbaric when they come to visit.  The Thai women, however, see some of the English customs as strange, although they willingly try to learn them. Throughout the story there is conflict between Anna and the King, because each other’s customs are contrary to what the other has learned. Anna does not believe in polygamy, but believes that a woman should not be given as a present, unwillingly, to a man. Tuptim, a woman from Burma, was given to the King as a wife. Tuptim does not love him, and runs away with her lover, but not before the performance of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in traditional Thai attire (pun intended) that includes a cultural ballet. “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” was a restaging of, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. That restaging was the backdrop for the story about the confines that are placed on people against their will, and how people work assiduously, vehemently, and often treacherously to shake the shackles that bind.  In the end, Tuptim is captured, and her lover is killed. Flogging is the traditional castigation. Anna pleads for mercy for Tuptim, seemingly to no avail.  But, at the moment that the king begins to flog Tuptim, Anna calls him a barbarian. That word has a dehumanizing effect on him, causing him a moment of reflection. He does not inflict the punishment, but he is never the same afterward. He wants to do what is right and he struggles with the internal and external conflict. The King and Anna do not speak for some time. He later relinquishes his kingdom to his son, adeptly played by Jon Viktor Corpuz.. Before the king’s death, he and Anna reconcile their differences and she is given everything for which she asked. The new King, subsequently, annuls some of the customs that his father previously embraced, because they do not advance kingdom harmony, but rather have the effect of denigrating the royal wives, the townspeople, and the children.

The most fabulous part of this performance was its staging. The stage was extended downstage allowing the audience to have a more intimate interaction with the characters, especially if one were sitting in the orchestra. At times during the performance, the actors were placed upstage, and that had the effect of giving the King more power over his subjects, but when he moved downstage, the audience could see his humanity and the internal struggle with the social mores of the time. For example, during the staging of the play within the play, the actors were downstage and placed close to the audience. The staging of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”, was the best part of the play. The choreography of traditional Thai dance with its grand costumes was beautiful. It was captivating and that part of the script illuminated the conflict that society has with its own popular or unpopular mores, illuminating the unpopular social fabric that is deeply embedded within cultures around the world. The pillars that moved up and down and sideways, superbly and dynamically portrayed the royal kingdom without overwhelming the audience with an overly ornate set.The set design and the costumes give us a glimpse into Thai culture. The staging of the set allows the audience to establish the significance of each scene. When the play within the play is staged downstage, the pillars of the kingdom are no longer on the stage. This allows the audience to focus on “the play within the play” and to take the focus off of the eminence of the king and his physical palace. That scene was aesthetically pleasing as the blocking helped the audience to focus on Tuptim and possibly identify with her longing to be free. On the otherhand, the chandeliers (European and not Thai), that were placed upstage during the dinner that the King had for his European guests, allowed his guests to see the king in a new light. He was placed further away from the audience also enabling the audience to see his eminence.

Jose Llana as the King of Siam Used with Permission
Jose Llana as the King of Siam
Used with Permission

Tuptim, played by Ashley Park, gave a noteworthy performance. I identified with her desire to be free from the ties that bound her to the King. As she tells the story of Eliza and her desire to escape from slavery, I could feel the anticipation of her own imminent escape. Also, I could not help but feel that some audience members reflected on a time in which they wanted to be with their lover, but were not allowed. When she interacted with her lover, Lun Tha, played by Conrad Ricamora, the chemistry between them was passionate.

The music was well conducted as the actors moved and danced with precision to some of the most famous tunes in musicals. Kelli O’ Hara, sang “Getting to Know You” beautifully. While watching the show, the gentleman sitting next to me tried hard, although at times unsuccessfully, to resist humming the tunes. When Anna and Llana danced to  “Shall we Dance”, they moved around downstage waltzing to the music that transfixed the audience. I wanted more.  A reprise at the end would have been great. The passion  with which they danced, though unspoken, was evident.

*Personal Note*

I identified most with Tuptim and with Lady Thiang. I identified with Tuptim because sometimes I have followed my heart even when others around me did not agree with decisions that I wanted to make.  Sometimes the decisions that we make do not always turn out as planned, but as Polonius said in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own/self be true.”  Tuptim’s actions were at a great personal cost, but she was willing to do what she felt was best for her. Throughout history, people have wanted freedom from social constraints that often limit our experiences. Tuptim was no different.  Moreover, I also identified with Lady Thiang. She has to make a difficult decision to confront Tuptim and her illicit love affair. Even though the play did not show her grappling with the decision to confront Tuptim, I believe that she struggled with making such a difficult decision. Sometimes, I have had to make an unpopular decision to expose something that had the potential of harming others.  Most people ignore the situation because they do not want to get involved with exposing something perceived as wrong.  Usually people say, ” Who am I to judge?”

Please see this performance.  It is beautiful, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera! Those are the most often repeated words in this musical and any other musical I know. Those words, each time uttered, brought a smile to my face. Until the next time, when a review of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child is posted.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch