Like an elderly relative who you make allowances for on grounds of age, classic musical ‘The King and I’ is kind of racist, but difficult to entirely hold to modern standards.
Indeed, back in 1951 Rodgers & Hammerstein’s smash may have seemed mildly progressive in its depiction of interracial almost-romance.
But in 2018 the hyper-orientalist depiction of the kingdom of Siam (aka Thailand) presided over by Ken Watanabe’s eccentric manchild of a king is frequently cringeworthy, not least for the bits in which Kelli O’Hara’s sparky British governess Anna frets at how unprogressive the place is. Lest we forget, at the time (it’s set in 1862) Britain didn’t allow any women to vote, and enjoyed massacres, corsets and tossing its poorer citizens into workhouses.
Obviously I’m coming across as a humourless leftie or whatever – but we wouldn’t tolerate this from a contemporary show. And indeed I have a nagging worry I wasn’t offended enough – if somebody had tried to depict Poland in the equivalent light I’d have absolutely kicked off; instead I mostly just rolled my eyes.
Anyhoo, the pedigree of Bartlett Sher’s production is pretty immaculate. A smash on Broadway, the excellent cast is headed up by Japanese film star Watanabe and US musical theatre heavyweight O’Hara, and features costumes of the most exquisite order from Catherine Zuber, plus some very cute child actors (it is perhaps worth noting, by-the-by, that while the cast is appropriately diverse, the creative team is mostly white).
O’Hara’s tones as Anna are just exquisitely detailed, cascades of perfectly precise, bell-clear sound that make even the overfamiliar ‘Getting to Know You’ sound beautifully fresh. Watanabe is not a technically adept singer by any stretch of the imagination, but in many respects he runs off with the show; boisterous and amusing as a hearty, eccentric man-child, incapable of escaping his kingship, but able to laugh about it to a point. There is a nice spark between them – perhaps not quite romance, but certainly a real sense that they’re two lonely people who find genuine solace in each other.
It is an often fairly amusing production, which perhaps blunts the eventual tragedy a little, but also takes the edge off some more problematic moments.
Nothing can completely prepare you for the lengthy sequence in which ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is reinterpreted as a traditional Siamese dance theatre show – it kind of hovers between being jaw-droppingly inappropriate and endearingly mad. I have to say I mostly just gaped at it incredulously, unable to stop myself from noting the fact that it was beautifully costumed and choreographed.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and that’s a genuinely mixed blessing – ‘The King and I’ has a gorgeous score and a big heart, and is unburdened by the layers of irony and self-awareness that tend to clag up modern musicals. But if it’s going to stay in the canon, it’s going to have to keep up with the times – if Shakespeare can do it, then Rodgers & Hammerstein should as well.