With more than a little anticipation to be in the Vivian Beaumont- Lincoln Center Theater, I looked about from my perch and spoke to the smart looking New Yorker in the next seat. “Wouldn’t this be fun if it was a sing-a-long? (Sometimes the awestruck country girl just emerges. It can’t be helped. ) “Yes! Wouldn’t it?” Her eyes lit up. “It’s wonderful music.”
As the lights went down, a large 19th century sailing vessel glided toward the audience continuing its course into the ‘harbour’ by way of a stage extension toward the aisle. It was a stunning entrance for a leading lady, and a statement that this production would be exceptional. The music began almost immediately with “I Whistle a Happy Tune” sung by Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her son (Jake Lucas).
It’s a song invoking personal courage which Anna needs. She has been widowed, impoverished, and finds herself in a foreign land seeking employment as the governess to the King’s 80 children. Her first encounter with the King is through his representative, a stern-faced, bare chested Kralahome (Paul Nakauchi), the Prime Minister/Minister of Defense and his retinue of guards. A problem arises. Her contract with King Mongkut (Hoon Lee) specified that she be given a house outside the palace walls but the accommodation is not forthcoming: The King cannot understand a single woman’s need for such a provision. As a thirteen year old he was housed outside the royal palace with a retinue and consorts, a practice that ensured the bloodline inside the palace sprang from the King. He does not think it seemly that the widowed governess to his children would be expecting the same. It’s the first of a series of cultural misunderstandings on both sides, and the set-up for a complex relationship between the two of admiration, competition, and sexual tension.
For her part, Anna misinterprets the King of Burma’s gift of the English speaking Tuptim (Ashley Park) to King Mongkut. She sees it as the provision of a sexual slave, when at the time, this form of gifting created political ties that cemented relationships between countries and amongst families. The song “Hello, Young Lovers” simultaneously evokes the heartache of Anna’s widowhood and Tuptim’s painful reality that she cannot marry the man of her choosing. The friendship between the two women evolves through their reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and over time Anna provides the cover for Tuptim’s clandestine meetings with her lover.
As the King seeks to be recognized as a modern man, not the barbarian he has been portrayed by the English press, Anna becomes more than a governess to his children. She becomes a guide for his understanding of Western thought and practices, and an influence upon the young heir, Prince Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz). On stage, the culmination of this progress is illustrated through the humorous and frenetic preparations for, and the hosting of, a state dinner. The principal guest, Sir Edward Ramsey (Edward Baker-Duly), is a former suitor of Anna’s. They dance briefly, surreptitiously observed by the King who jealously reminds Anna that dancing is for later. The entertainment after dinner is an exquisitely performed Siamese-inspired ballet of The Small House of Uncle Thomas. It’s a thinly disguised criticism of King Mongkut, written and narrated by Tuptim, which leads later that evening to her arrest and imprisonment. But before these events, the King presents Anna with a ring to celebrate their success, and he requests that Anna teach him to dance as he saw her dance with Sir Edward. The sexual tension between Anna and the King is taut as he tentatively reaches across the distance of her expansive and hooped gown to grasp her waist, and then take her left hand to begin dancing. There is sweat on their brows, but not a stitch of clothing is awry. It’s joyous!
The juxtaposition of the dancing with the capture of Tuptim and the intent to flog her is heart-wrenching. Her lover with whom she planned to escape has been found dead and she is dragged away by guards. Anna, with regret that she ever came to Siam and anger with the King, returns the ring by way of the Kralahome.
This time the King and Anna are not able to breach their cultural divide. Some months later, as Anna prepares to leave Siam, she receives a letter from the King who is dying. She returns to his bedside where he announces that Prince Chulalongkorn will be the next king. Anna takes dictation from the Prince whose first proclamation is that kowtowing, the extreme bowing to the King that Anna had despised will no longer be permitted. As the Prince demonstrates a more constrained bow, the King dies surrounded by his wives, children, and with Anna by his side. It’s a poignant ending.
The play is superbly cast. The actors are “on” for the entire performance. They are attentive and responsive to each other both emotionally and physically. This is true for Prince Chulalongkorn who initially seems distant from his siblings, his governess and even his father. But what I interpreted as an ill-at-ease stage presence is the expression of a teenager thrust into the conflict of Western and Eastern cultures. His father has demanded that he learn from a woman in a country where women have no value beyond reproduction and household management. Jon Viktor Corpuz acquits himself well in this role.
The costumes are beautifully crafted. Anna’s attire is suitable for a governess. The waist jackets are exquisitely tailored and the hooped skirts are large. Only for the state dinner are Anna’s shoulders bare, but even then there is a modesty invoking shawl. The wives’ clothing is jewel coloured and sari-like in its styling, and enhances their modest movement. The King, the Prince and the Kralahome wear richly coloured and embroidered waistcoats with ‘trousers’ that suggests that fabric has been wrapped about the legs and waist. The back-stage costume support and quick change helper that I am knows that this cannot be so. Their costumes are both beautiful and masculine.
With the exception of the sailing vessel in the stunning harbour scene, the set is simple and elegant. It is reminiscent of a Buddhist temple which is transformed with the addition of furnishings and draping to the throne room, the schoolroom, the garden, Anna’s bedroom, the dining room, and the King’s study.
I purchased a copy of The Lincoln Centre Theater Review, Spring 2015 Issue, Number 65 which I would highly recommend for your post performance review. It contains 12 articles ranging from an interview with the director, set designer and costume designer to an excerpt from “The English Governess at the Siamese Court.” I welcomed the articles that set the story in both a cultural and political frame.
This current production of The King and I is outstanding. While the music is memorable and sing-able, I have concluded that there should never be a sing-along version!
See you at the theatre!