Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s score is as glorious today as it ever has been, the now iconic “Small House Of Uncle Thomas” ballet remains a thing of unique beauty and charm, and Victoria Strong and Richard Bermudez not only prove sensational choices to play Anna and the King of Siam, they give the visiting English schoolmarm and the Siamese monarch a romantic, sexual chemistry almost unheard of since The King And I made its 1951 Broadway debut.
Unfortunately, the current Welk Resort Theatre staging of the R&J classic also features some racially insensitive casting choices straight out of the 1950s that underline the creakiness of book writer Hammerstein’s depiction of the Thai people and their centuries-old culture.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s fifth Broadway musical has been revived so many times over the past sixty-four years, and the film classic (starring Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, and the voice of Marni Nixon) seen by so many millions, that few adults must remain unfamiliar with the tale of Anna Leonowens, who became schoolteacher to the children of the King of Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860s.
Millions upon millions have heard the show’s oft-performed and recorded hits, including “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting To Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall We Dance.” In fact, there’s hardly a song in The King And I that hasn’t become a standard.
Even today, 1951’s The King And I can, at its best, provide a still relevant lesson in how people from very different cultures can learn from each other and grow as human beings. True, it’s mostly the “Siamese” who learn from the British, yet schoolteacher Anna Leonowens is herself taught to be less judgmental and more respectful of a foreign culture, and how to look beyond the surface to the person within.
That being said, of the four King And I productions that I’ve now reviewed, this is the first to make me aware that Hammerstein’s book may not have aged as well as those he wrote for Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific, and may well need the kind of racially-culturally sensitive updating that David Henry Hwang gave Flower Drum Song for its 2002 Broadway revival.
The King And I did apparently get a good deal of tweaking when it returned to Broadway in 1996 to make it, in the words of director Christopher Renshaw, “an authentic Thai experience.”
Unfortunately, it seems that the version licensed by R&H is the 1951 original, dated Asian stereotypes and all.
Race-appropriate casting helps mask these flaws when performers of Asian descent lend dignity and authenticity to the roles they play.
Such is not the case when you sketch black eyeliner and plop a black wig on a Caucasian actor and tell him or her to “play Asian.” The Welk would never for a moment have considered hiring white performers to portray Hairspray’s Motormouth Maybelle or Seaweed J. Stubbs in blackface, and yet this is essentially what they have done with Tuptim, the Kralahome, several royal wives, and more in their King And I.
That is not to say that the performers in question are in any way untalented. Michaelia Leigh (Tuptim) has a Best Lead Actress Scenie for her performance in CLOSBC’s The Light In The Piazza and Jacob Hoff plays the Kralahome with admirable power and respect. They are, however, not the right actors for these roles, and a trio of black-wigged Caucasian wives look embarrassingly out of place next to their Asian counterparts.
There is some excellent work being done on the Welk Theatre stage under the direction of Joshua Carr, who also produces. Best of all among supporting players is Asian-American Jan Colby’s dynamic young Prince Chulalonghorn. A splendid Jalin Hsu’s Lady Thiang sings “Something Wonderful” with exquisite pipes, Austin Oducayen does nice work as Lun Tha opposite the lovely Leigh, Devin Colins makes for a distinctive pair of Brits as Captain Orton and Sir Edward, and Matthew Mohler is a spunky young Louis Leonowens, with Chris Bona completing the featured cast as the Interpreter alongside one unbilled extra thrown in for muscular male pulchritude.
As for the legendary “Small House Of Uncle Thomas” ballet, choreographer Joanna Tsang recreates Jerome Robbins’ now iconic moves to exciting effect, with expert performances by Colby (Simon) and royal wives Jeni Baker (Angel), Katey Konderik (Eliza), Joyce Lai (Uncle Thomas), Bailey Sonner (Topsy), and Imani White (Little Eva).
The King’s children (reduced in number to a mere seven this time round) are charming young performers, though not perhaps reflecting the variety of ages you’d get from the customarily larger number of royal progeny. They are Robyn Baker, Angel Cassandra Nath, Brendan Pantazis, Emma Ragen, Anastasia Ray, Nicholas Redd, and Ace Young.
All of which leads me to the two best reasons to see this King And I—its two stars.
Appearing not to have aged a day in the twenty or so years I have been a Victoria Stong fan, the Southland musical theater treasure is everything you could possibly wish a Mrs. Anna to be, combining beauty, warmth, delicacy, mettle, and radiant stage presence with her trademark exquisite soprano. (That Strong’s Anna follows her raw, gusty performance as Aldonza in Glendale Centre Theatre’s Man Of La Mancha makes her work on the Welk stage all the more remarkable.)
As for Anna’s King, there may never have been a hotter-handsomer-hunkier young sovereign than Richard Bermudez, graduating from three Southern California turns as Lun Tha to the star vehicle that is King Mongkut of Siam and doing so with flying colors (and an upper torso that “bares” repeating). Bermudez’s King blends intelligence, humor, sex appeal, and strength, and his pipes are as gorgeous as they get.
The result of Strong opposite Bermudez is romantic-sexual chemistry epitomized, and never more so than in a “Shall We Dance?” sequence that positively sizzles with the hots these two characters have developed for each other.
Music director Justin Gray and his three fellow pit musicians once again make an orchestra of four sound like twice that many. Doug Davis’s colorful sets, Jennifer Edwards’ vibrant lighting, Janet Pitcher’s exotic costumes (provided by Theatre Company), Beverly George’s multiple props, and Patrick Hoyny’s crystal-clear sound design are all first-rate.
Had this The King And I been staged several decades ago, this reviewer would likely not have batted an eye at its instances of race-bending casting. Times have changed, however, and it is to be hoped that other companies electing to revive this musical theater classic will make the necessary effort to cast Asian actors in Asian roles.
Dreamgirls, Memphis, and Show Boat should never be cast “colorblind.” Neither should The King And I.
The Welk Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Dr, Escondido.
January 8, 2015
Photos: Ken Jacques