When discussing the musical The King and I, it is crucial to view the play through two lenses. First, it is important to look at the production itself, which in the Lincoln Center Theater‘s case is a opulent showcase of a bygone era. Secondly, there is the text itself, which is layered with Orientalism and imperial condescension.
Annalene Beechey plays Anna Lenowens, governess to the King of Thailand’s children. Her performance embodies everything a good teacher should be: kind, firm, and compassionate. Beechey’s sublime voice comes into its own when she’s belting out some of Hammerstein‘s classics, and her fury and frustration is expertly balanced with the softer side of her character.
Likewise, Jose Llana, playing King Mongkut opposite Beechey, gives warmth to a role that is, by its very nature, fairly aloof. His stage presence is undeniable and commanding, and his entourage of courtesans move in sync so effortlessly that sometimes it’s easy to forget they aren’t one entity, as they change scenery without breaking the flow of the play.
The Ram Thai (traditional Thai dancing) incorporated into the play’s second half is beautiful and reflects real Thai culture, which could otherwise be lost amongst the other plot threads. The same can be said of the traditional Thai music accompanying the dancing, and the Chada headdresses the actors wear.
Unfortunately, one cannot distance this excellent performance from the deeply problematic source material. Granted, this interpretation has shied well away from the yellowface that plagued both its original stage and film versions, choosing instead to showcase genuine Asian talent. However, other outdated aspects of the original still remain. The white-saviour complex that Anna harbours is no less blatant today than it was in 1951, as she patiently explains to the King that yes, women are people too (the Victorian Britain from whence she came was not exactly a bastion of women’s rights itself). In fact, Thailand considers The King and I so offensive that it is still banned in the Kingdom today.
The performance put on by the Lincoln Center Theatre has beautiful sets, exquisite costumes, and a very talented cast. Still, the enjoyment is definitely marred by one key question: the appropriateness of choosing to put on The King and I in a 21st-century context, without first addressing the fundamental issues in the original text.