A new production of the evergreen 1951 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, onstage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre, focuses on the cultural divide between East and West which existed in the early 1860s. The narrative encapsulates the bittersweet emotions of forbidden love as well as deep divisions between old and new world traditions.
Austere actualities become theatrically entertaining fare as the Richard Rodgers (composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist) creation delicately balances narrative delight and exotic visuals. Its source is Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam” which was derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand). Theatre goers have annointed the work as a classic, its rich vibrancy offering an invitation for “Getting To Know You” which is imaginatively more in tune than actual historical accounts.
The telling of a king trying to come to terms in the modern world, yet unable to resist the forces of ancient customs, was originally interpreted by the relatively unknown Yul Brynner (a role he performed over 2000 times), and Gertrude Lawrence. Brynner then was paired with Deborah Kerr for the 1956 film verson, crowning him with a best actor Oscar.
Anna is a widowed British school teacher brought to Siam to tutor the King’s many children. When she arrives, though she enjoys an instant connection to the students, she struggles with cultural differences and with the headstrong King who struggles to resist the forces of ancient customs. Through her kindness and persistence, Anna eventually connects with the monarch helping to fuel mutual feelings of social understanding and cultural acceptance and openness.
The repertoire of every musical from Broadway’s golden years flourished with multiple melodies resonating with audiences, and remain in memory. The popular “King and I,” revived professionally many times, scores high with “I Whistle A Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers”, “Getting To Know You”, “Something Wonderful” and “Shall We Dance?” You can hear them in your mind as you read this.
The show’s spectacle is further hightened by “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famed novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Its theme of slavery a reflection of conditions existing in Siam which is a point of conflict between Anna and the King. The ballet is performed during a dinner for an English diplomat, an attempt to impress their colonialist guest, as well as present the monarch as a forward thinking ruler.
This revival is vibrant and stirs the soul, paying homage to the creative genius of R&H, taking audiences to another world and another time, and doing so with the the majesty of their music. “The King and I” is playing at Toronto’s Princessof Wales Theatre.