The King and I

 Presented by John Frost and Opera Australia, April 19, Lyric Theatre, Brisbane.

LISA McCune has probably never sounded or looked lovelier. As Anna Leonowens in The King and I, McCune has all the sweet-spot songs – Hello, Young Lovers, I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? – and gets to sing them wearing Roger Kirk’s ravishing gowns. She is the calm, commanding centre of the piece and a joy to behold.

This is not unexpected. McCune is a music theatre veteran despite still looking as dewy fresh as a teenager and she has something of the sexy primness of the head prefect about her – perfect for the role of a Western governess in the Siamese court in the 19th century.

Lisa McCune in South Pacific. Photo: Brian Geach

Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens in The King and I. Photo: Brian Geach

In 1862 the exceptionally adventurous Leonowens, a widow, went to what was then called Siam to teach the multitudinous wives, consorts and children of King Mongkut, a man who apparently prided himself on his English-language skills and wanted his court to learn them. A wise move, as the West’s roving eye meant great vigilance was required. Leonowens wrote two memoirs full of vivid detail about culture, art, religious practice and her combative relationship with the monarch, books that inspired the 1944 Margaret Landon novel that is the basis of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical.

It’s clear from Leonowens’s writing that while there were many practices in Siam she abhorred, she found much to admire in her pupils and in King Mongkut. Rodgers and Hammerstein were socially progressive too – think of the plea for racial tolerance in South Pacific – and while there’s an element of condescension in their portrayal of the Siamese court, so exotic to 1950s Western eyes, there are nevertheless Asian characters that claim the audience’s understanding. The secondary figures of Lady Thiang, Tuptim and Lun Tha aren’t given a lot of stage time and aren’t integrated into the musical entirely satisfactorily, but they are highly sympathetic.

Most crucially the musical within the musical, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is full of riches. In a narrated dance piece lasting about a quarter of an hour – an audaciously long interruption to the main body of the musical – the unhappy Tuptim, one of the king’s concubines, presents a fervent and touching distillation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, putting it into a Buddhist context. It is an act of protest on her part, beautiful but dangerous. At this point Jerome Robbins’s choreography (reproduced in this production by Susan Kikuchi), Brian Thomson’s design, Rodgers’s Eastern-inflected music, Hammerstein’s inspired writing and the performances of Jenny Lui (Tuptim) and the ensemble work together to create unforgettable magic.

I can’t help wondering to what degree The King and I’s earliest American audiences would have been reminded of their history of slavery at a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

In The Small House of Uncle Thomas Rodgers’s music quotes from It’s a Puzzlement when referring to the slave-owner Simon Legree – a rebuke to King Mongkut. There are also a couple of phrases from Hello, Young Lovers, linking the plight of the runaway Eliza and her lover George to that of Tuptim and her secret love, Lun Tha.

It’s a pity that a song that previously opened the second act, Western People Funny, was excised from this production for length reasons – the production, not the song – before it went to Broadway in 1996 and has stayed excised. In it Lady Thiang and women of the court criticise Western attitudes towards them. They have been asked to wear Western dress, and this is what they have to say about it: “To prove we’re not barbarians/ They dress us up like savages! … Western people funny/ Of that there is no doubt/ They feel so sentimental/ About the Oriental/ They always try to turn us/ Upside out and inside down!”

In Christopher Renshaw’s staging while this song is missing we do see Mongkut’s wives trying on vast hooped skirts. And, very regrettably, flashing a bit of bare bottom.

The King and I is far from being a work that casually dismisses Asians as childlike and amusing, although directorial choices can take one in that direction if they do not take into account changing attitudes. An audience today will look at the musical with very different eyes from those of 63 years ago when it premiered, and even from 23 years ago when this production was first staged – that’s a whole generation.

I was surprised last Saturday night that a production I had much enjoyed when first seeing it in 1991 now felt so heavy-handed, McCune excepted. Memory is a treacherous thing but I don’t recall Thomson’s design looking quite so gaudy with its riot of red and gold accessorised with a tsunami of crystals and multitudinous points of light. The look brought to mind the bold colours and outlines of a child’s picture book. And the opening scene when Anna and her son arrive in Bangkok – was it really that unsubtle in its tawdry depiction of a bustling Asian port and the gradations of power between court officials and minions?

The casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes makes commercial sense after his music-theatre debut in South Pacific as Emile de Becque, a role that needs a fine bass baritone. Rhodes’s singing of Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine added great lustre to South Pacific. That he and McCune, who starred as Nellie Forbush, are now off-stage partners is presumably also a factor.

He is, however, not ideal casting for the role of the King of Siam. Most obviously, he is not Asian. Leaving politics aside (that’s a whole other and very large subject), it’s not convincing theatrically. It’s not even as if there’s an imperative to have the King played by someone who has been operatically trained.

Rhodes’s key gift isn’t needed here, although I admit it was fun to hear him make It’s a Puzzlement sound as if it actually has a melody. The King was originally played by non-singer Yul Brynner (triumphantly) and at one point late in his life by Rudolf Nureyev (disastrously), and the role has minimal musical commitments that can be negotiated by speaking in rhythm and occasionally going up and down. As for the acting requirements, Rhodes is allowed to give a one-note performance for most of the musical’s length. Much stomping and arms akimbo suggest childish petulance rather than a mature ruler’s implacable authority, although at the end Rhodes unleashes anger that at last feels authentic.

The more ambitious music is given to secondary figures, here cast from strength. Shu-Cheen Yu’s Lady Thiang, Lui’s Tuptim and Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha are all sung superbly, with Yu’s Something Wonderful a standout. The looser-than-ideal structure often grates, but it also allows room for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with its radiant dance inspired by the classical Siamese tradition. And for this gift I can forgive quite a lot.

Brisbane until June 1. Melbourne, June 10-August 17; Sydney, September 7-November 1. Rhodes will appear in the Sydney season of The King and I but is unavailable for Melbourne, where Jason Scott Lee, an American of Chinese-Hawaiian descent who sang the role opposite Elaine Paige in London in 2000-2001, will appear with McCune.

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