Is it any good?
It’s like a Filipino party!
I know The King and I is a show about the king of Thailand nee Siam. That doesn’t change the fact that most Asian musical actors are Filipino. All probably due to the fabulous success of Lea Salonga. This is why representation is important. Seeing yourself represented on stage or screen can lead to a whole new generation of followers and fellow trailblazers.
But let’s back it up. This is a super seriously classical musical brought to the Oriental Theatre stage (I don’t know whether that’s just really appropriate or kinda head-shakingly racist.) The story is fairly simple. The eponymous King of Siam, played by Jose Llana, has employed Anna Leonowens, played by Laura Michelle Kelly to teach his children and favored wives of the ways of the west. His country is in a tricky spot and he would like to move his monarchy forward by integrating East and West. And… that’s actually kinda the story. There’s other stuff that happens: conflict between Anna and the king, a western style dinner party, one of the king’s wives in love with another man, but it’s mostly about the king and his ever evolving relationship with this schoolteacher as kind of a metaphor for the precarious relationship between east and west.
On the surface, there’s a lot to dislike. The songs are mostly boring, it starts off as kind of a pale imitation of The Sound of Music set in the exotic and foreign far east, and the characterizations of the king, his court, and his country are somewhat infantile and racist. And yet… this production provides both an outlet for Asian creative expression as well as showing us the MOST complex Asian characters that have ever been allowed on stage or screen.
How can this be when I described them as racist caricatures? Let’s just examine it a bit. Firstly, Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut were real people. She wrote about her time as a school teacher in her memoirs which were later adapted into a fictionalized book by Margaret Landon in 1944. Yet, despite the fact that this is an Asian story through a European lens, Anna does not dominate the story. It still is an Asian story. And the King is much more complicated than his brash outward demeanor suggests. He is torn between tradition and modernization. He loves his children and his wives and Anna, but he struggles mightily to express that while still maintaining what he feels must be his kingly facade. And Jose Llana does it all really wonderfully. He plays it very broad most of the time. He’s got this insanely expressive face that he contorts for some cheap, but appropriate laughs, but you can also see that he struggles to be tender even though he seems to be a very loving person at heart. It’s also really refreshing to see a strong, powerful, romantic Asian lead. My goodness, the Shall We Dance scene is crackling with this romantic spark. When he pulls Anna in close to dance as Westerners do, it’s the simplest and sexiest gesture you’ll ever see on stage. And you never, ever see that in anything else. Asian men are still portrayed in media as harmless, sexless, and inert. So that simple gesture is very powerful.
That was complex Asian character number 1. Complex Asian character number 2 is Tuptim, played by Manna Nichols. She was a present from the king of Burma to the king of Siam despite having her own life that she wanted to live. She is obedient, but unloving to the king of Siam because she is in love with another man, Lun Tha. At the climax of the show, she presents an adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin where she connects her life directly with that of the slave Eliza Harris in an act of defiance of the king of Siam, which forces him to confront how comfortable he is with leaving his traditions behind to embrace a more compassionate western philosophy. Manna Nichols has a nice instrument, but struggles to use it a bit. Her first number was glaringly uneven though she settled down and powered through her other songs well. But she gave this character such a heart and desperation. And she was well matched by the heartsick Lun Tha, played by honest to goodness Thai person, Kavin Panmeechao. He’s got a very sonorous voice and he can REALLY sing. His is the sort of voice that is at home in any Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe production. He would kill at “On the Street Where You Live” or “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful.” Unfortunately… he’s brown. And us brown folks don’t get a lot of chances.
It’s a shame actually. Despite years and years, there aren’t any more complex characters for Asians to play. There’s King and I, Flower Drum Song, and Miss Saigon. All of them have beauty and great songs. All of them have their problems. But the landscape isn’t shifting. It’s been over 20 years since Lea came on the scene with Miss Saigon and while Telly Leung and others have been given great opportunities, it’s not in uniquely Asian roles that let us be interesting, fully realized people.
Final thought: Laura Michelle Kelly is outstanding! Her voice is actually kinda perfect. Almost obnoxiously perfect. Like… I know a ton of people who could work forever and will just never be able to sound like that. Great job as Anna.
Go watch it. And then ponder what it means to be inclusive in the world of musical theatre