Today we tend to view vintage shows through revisionist glasses. We’re no longer happy with the Shylock in Merchant of Venice; we shudder at Rex Harrison’s patriarchal smugness in My Fair Lady.
That said, a good show is a good show. Victorians would be well advised to catch a superior touring production of The King and I, which has two performances today and two more Sunday at the Royal Theatre.
It’s true that some might flinch at this 1951 musical’s pre-#MeToo plot, in which the imperious king of Siam (Thailand today) treats a female schoolteacher like a disobedient poodle.
Others might be, in general, justifiably wary of bus-and-truck incarnations of Broadway shows, which can be a mixed bag.
Fear not. This well-rehearsed big-cast musical literally hits all the right notes. The principal performers are strong; the costumes and set are bold and stylish; the choreography and direction are sharp and elegantly simple.
Even if you find it cringe-making when Brit schoolteacher Anna must physically bow down to the King, no one can deny the lush beauty of Richard Rodgers’ melodies or the seductive fairy-tale quality of Oscar Hammerstein’s book and lyrics.
For those who have never seen the classic film starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, The King and I chronicles the 19th-century adventures of Anna (Angela Baumgardner), who has been enlisted to tutor the children of the King of Siam (Pedro Ka’awaloa).
Anna proves herself spunky from the get-go, insisting the King provide the brick house he promised in a letter and threatening to leave if he doesn’t. The King spends much of the musical expressing amazement at Anna’s impertinence, yet slowly warms to her proto-feminist wisdom and strength.
Thursday night’s performance showed we’re in good hands with Baumgardner, a veteran performer and classic beauty who looks like she was teleported from a 1950s film. On songs such as I Whistle a Happy Tune, she revealed a strong, clear soprano and a knack for phrasing. She’s a good actor as well, knowing when to milk a poignant moment with a judicious amount of theatricality.
Ka’awaloa is a big, brash stage presence who has consciously detoured from Brynner’s dignified interpretation. His King is broadly comical, slightly hammy, even goofy at times. A percolating sexual tension is supposed to exist between Anna and the King.
This is in scant evidence — it doesn’t help that in this case, the king bears a passing resemblance to a young Jerry Lewis.
Still, Ka’awaloa did offer an entertaining performance.
No one sang better than Paulina Yeung, who plays Tuptim, a young girl offered as a gift to the King. The young soprano, with a background in opera as well as musical theatre, particularly impressed in My Lord and Master, displaying a thrilling edge in the upper register.
These days, one rarely sees such a big show on a Victoria stage. There are about 30 in the cast (some of them charming children) and an 11-piece pit orchestra.
The lovely costumes are made with beautifully coloured fabrics. Costumes and props, including fine masks and headdresses, are displayed to strong effect in the Act II dance scene, in which the Siamese court performs a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which they call The Small House of Uncle Thomas.
The direction and choreography are uncomplicated — in the best sense of the term — and effective. Ditto for the vivid backdrops, props and lighting.
To cater to modern sensibilities, the producers of this show might have opted to exorcise sections of The King and I. Anna’s declaration “I believe women are just as good as men” no doubt seemed defiant to the suit-and-tie crowd of the 1950s.
Today, it comes across as a bon mot from The Book of Captain Obvious. Similarly, some will question the King’s zeal to “modernize” Siam by assimilating British culture — or the pidgin English favoured by his courtiers.
This show makes no attempt to bowdlerize history. It’s faithful to the past, taking inspiration from the original direction and choreography. This is the right approach.
With such a strong production, we are seduced by the beauty of the musical. We are pulled into its mix of comedy and drama … even its colonialist portrayal of the “exotic” East.
Upcoming: Langham Court Theatre opens The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee on Jan. 17. The comedy, about six young misfits in a battle of wits, continues to Feb. 2.