by Lynn on July 25, 2018

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

Music by Richard Rodgers

Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

Directed by Bartlett Sher

Choreographed by Christopher Gattelli

Based on the Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins

Sets by Michael Yeargan

Costumes by Catherine Zuber

Lighting by Donald Holder

Sound by Scott Lehrer

Cast: Joan Almedilla

Jose Llana

Q Lim

Charlie Oh

Kavin Panmeechao

Brian Rivera

Elena Shaddow

Ryan Stout

Baylen Thomas

And a fine chorus

A lush beautiful looking production that is beautifully sung but could use a visit with the director to put some zip into some performances and tone down others.

The Story. The story is based on the novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which in turn was based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens. In the 1860s Anna Leonowens, British, a widow with a young son, went to Siam (now Thailand) to be the teacher of the King’s children and wives. He wanted Anna to teach them English and western customs. He was forward thinking but there were aspects of that culture that bothered Anna: the King was allowed multiple wives, women were subservient, people had to bow low to him, brutality was a punishment. Occasionally Anna and the King sparred over various points. They did have a grudging respect for one another. Although she references a letter he sent to her assuring her her own house which he seems to have forgotten. I always wondered why Anna didn’t just present the letter—seems so obvious to have brought it with her. But then I guess the musical would have been much shorter.

The Production. Michael Yeargan’s simple set of moveable maroon pillars creates the size and grandeur of the palace. A huge Buddha in one of the rooms in the palace also adds to the size of the place.  Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costumes capture the exoticism of the people of Siam.

Director Bartlett Sher is a master of surprise with his penchant for coup de theatre. The production gets off to a dazzling start with Anna (Elena Shaddow) and her son Louis’ (Ryan Stout) arriving  by boat (and that’s all I’ll say).  There is majesty in her arrival and also the sense of the crowded world of Siam.

Sher is a careful, detail-minded director. What is going on at the back of a scene with members of the court is as important as what is going on in the centre of the scene with the leads. Much is made of the many wives of the King. They all sit up stage  Some are in favour and some are not. Those not in favour  lower their heads slightly in embarrassment. Those in favour sit up with their heads high. It’s such a small detail but it is so telling both about the court and Sher’s meticulous attention to detail

Elena Shaddow is confident and charming as Anna. She has a lovely voice, but I sense a tentativeness in her singing and at times her acting seems subdued. She does stand up to the King when he is demanding but she could be more ‘engaged’ in the scenes as a whole. Jose Llama is a very confident, proud King. There is no doubt he is in control and command as he struts into and out of scenes, usually with his hands on his hips. He has a strong voice but I find that he looses his temper too much. This weakens the idea that the King is a forward thinking monarch who ponders each question and ‘puzzlement’ with deliberation. (This tour of the celebrated 2015 Lincoln Center production has been on the road for two years. Perhaps a visit from Bartlett Sher is in order to get the production into tighter shape.)

Joan Almedilla is outstanding as Lady Thiang, the King’s favourite wife. She has regal bearing and you can see the political savvy of the woman in knowing how the politics of the palace works and what the King needs to really govern. And her singing of “Something Wonderful” is something wonderful.

Comment. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II have written some of the most successful musicals of all time, that certainly don’t shy away from difficult problems: Carousel (wife-beating and blind love), South Pacific (mixed-marriage, racism) Oklahoma (racism, xenophobia, mental illness), The Sound of Music (invading Nazis,–although the lyric “like a lark who is learning to pray” has always caused me concern.) And The King and I is no different. They have created the world of Siam in 1860 where the culture and ideas of Eastern thinking clash with Western thinking; where polygamy is the norm, as is brutality if a subject commits a wrong.  How does one approach this thinking in 2018? I think the most logical solution is to consider The King and I and any musical from another era for its time and not get bent out of shape imposing our 2018 sensibilities on to it.

The ideas of the King towards his subjects and his wives are often objectionable. Do we dismiss the musical outright because it doesn’t conform to our modern way of thinking? No, we consider it from its historic perspective and how times have changed. And the fact that the music is ravishing and there are at least seven classic songs in the score.

David Mirvish Presents:

Plays until: Aug. 12, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, approx.

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