East meets West, again
The King and I revival is a modern marvel
Hello, young lovers, wherever you are, I hope your troubles are few. All my good wishes go with you tonight, I’ve been in love like you.
—“Hello, Young Lovers,” The King and I
The most iconic lines of the most iconic song in a play whose lyrics have become part of the DNA of modern musical romance fans are essential to understanding the perennial popularity of this musical theater classic. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I puts the philosophies and customs of traditional Eastern and modern Western culture in direct, dramatic confrontation. But its central theme lies in the differences between what lovers of any era or culture hope for and what those lovers almost inevitably struggle to overcome.
Written shortly after WWII, and reflecting the diplomatic challenges of that nation-uniting era, the play is based on Margaret Landon’s semifictionalized biographical novel derived from the memoir of Anna Leonowens (1831–1915), who taught Western customs to the wives and children of King Mongkut in a successful strategy to keep Siam (Thailand) an independent country when the British Empire was striving to expand its colonial power in the Far East. Historical perspective aside, what gives The King and I its long-lasting and nearly universal appeal is that it is essentially a love story about a classically mismatched couple who, through often adversarial experiences, learn to appreciate and respect each other as unique individuals.
Directed by Daun Weiss, the Chico Theater Company’s lavishly staged and costumed production highlights all of its cultural and historical subtext without shirking a bit of its requisite exotic costumery, pageantry or wit. Anna (the perfectly cast and voiced Jenise Coon) is a young widow, who, with her son Louis (Kylie-Ann Humble), travels to Siam to take up the task of modernizing the many children and bevy of wives of the King (played by Theo Bill) by teaching them English manners and speech in order to impress visiting British emissary Sir Edward Ramsay (Nick Anderson).
The brilliance and wit of Hammerstein’s script and lyrics are as easily appreciated today as during the musical’s debut in 1951, and the loveliness of Rodgers’ lush melodies for the play’s big “hits”—“Hello, Young Lovers,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune”— make the songs timelessly appealing, at least for those for whom sentiment is not a derisive term.
The set, by designers/painters Amber Miller and Christopher Burkhardt, is at once minimalistic and exotically picturesque, with subtle lighting changes that bring out varying hues of lavender, deep green and yellow in the painted jungle backdrop depending on the emotional tone of the scene. And the scenes vary greatly, between the charming “March of the Royal Siamese Children” (as the King’s many offspring are presented to their new teacher in the royal chambers) and the wonderfully choreographed (by Sheree Henning) “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” The latter is presented as a play-within-a-play adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic, presented in mock-Oriental opera style by the King’s latest concubine, Tuptim (Yuka Noguchi), who, with her secret lover, Lun Tha (Bryce Zubiate), provides a diametric foil to the incipient and unacknowledgeable love of Anna and the King.
With a sumptuously costumed cast of 24, plus well-conceived and -executed choreography, beautiful songs, witty dialogue and a richly orchestrated (prerecorded) soundtrack, The King and I delivers everything one could hope for—save live musicians—in a musical theater production. And it also delivers an enjoyable explication of the cultural differences resonating between Eastern and Western culture in the Victorian and post-WWII eras as well as our own, all within the pretext of exploring the problematic nature of romantic love.
It’s an exploration worthy of the trip.