Rodgers & Hammerstein’s social justice epic ‘The King & I’ still packs a punch
The next time a hater dismisses the musical format as silly fluff, share this with him: Over the course of just 16 years in the 1940s and ’50s, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II produced 11 original works (nine stage shows, a movie and a TV special, both since adapted to the stage). Among those musicals, three contained major Asian characters, and many of them were pointedly critical of right-wing extremism (Nazis, racism, imperialism). They wrote tuneful musicals, yes, but they were about something.
You have to attribute a lot of that to Hammerstein (the author and lyricist). Even without Rodgers, he wrote Show Boat (with its interracial marriage) and Carmen Jones (all-black cast in a modernization of Carmen). Social justice meant something to him … and long before the Civil Rights Movement got officially underway.
With that backdrop in mind, it’s difficult to watch The King & I, which Dallas Summer Musicals has onstage in an all-new tour, and not think about how a musical written in 1951, and set in 1865, seems more progressive than current Texas politics. As I sat there on press night, listening to the “barbarian” King of Siam (Alan Ariano) matter-of-factly state that the earth spins on an axis and has been around much longer than the Bible says, I wondered whether attendance should be required of the committee that writes Texas’ school textbook policy.
All of this is by way of saying, you can still feel a thrill watching an excellent production of a 64-year-old piece of stagecraft just because it’s so ballsy. Sedate sometimes, even stately? Oh, yes — Rodgers’ scores were magnificently orchestral. But there’s passion and beauty that takes your breath away.
That’s apparent from the opening scene, in which the British schoolmistress Anna Leonowens (Rachel York), accepts a job as tutor in far-off Siam (now Thailand), sings the opening number, “Whistle a Happy Tune.” Is that… could it be… Julie Andrews?!?! You’d swear it was: Close your eyes, and York’s crystalline soprano and perfect diction will convince you you’ve entered an alternative universe where Mary Poppins finally got to play Anna. She’s amazing.
But the fact is, everyone is in this lushly-appointed production. York sings fully half the songs, including the most famous (“Whistle,” “Shall We Dance,” “Getting to Know You,” “Hello, Young Lovers”), but allow yourself to be swept away in the gorgeous forbidden romance between Tuptim (Yoonjeong Seong) and Lun Tha (devastatingly sexy Devin Ilaw), whose duets are scorched with sexual energy. And while every King since Yul Brynner lives in the shadow of his legendary performance, Ariano (short, giving him a bulldoggish center of gravity) makes the role his own. (The choreography is also breathtaking.)
It’s salient that the show’s sprightliest number, “Shall We Dance,” is interrupted by the show’s most gruesome and emotional twist. It turns on a dime, wrenching you from glee to gasp. That’s the power of a great musical. Haters gonna hate, but King & I is great.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 27, 2015.