Fresh off the boat with her son in tow, British widow and governess Anna arrives in Siam prepared to teach the wives and children of its increasingly progressive king. Seeking help in advancing Siam into the ever-growing Western world, Anna is on hand to bring her questionable balance of facts and opinions to its old-fashioned leader, whose nation is built on tradition, religion and order. With fire and freshness, we witness Anna (played by Annalene Beechey) share in the king’s ambitions to enhance Siam while revealing her history of lost love to his wives.
Despite being donned a “very difficult woman” for demanding to live outside the king’s palace and question him over his unsocialised manners, the story ceremoniously brings the two cultures together. Lapping the narrative with tuneful, slow-burning songs by the famous writing duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, the gentle musical isn’t lacking in memorable hits.
As Anna is drawn into her new family, she learns of the wives devotions (or lack thereof) to their king, which dramatically builds in the second act, following the two embedded worlds that turn to showcase a theatrical production written by the kings newest wife, Lady Tuptim. Tuptim’s play enables a revised telling of Uncle Tom's Cabin, renamed here as The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Although the book is given to Tuptin by Anna, the story is reshaped by Asian influences, creating a mini production rich in inventive choreography, alongside the sharp live orchestra. Yet, as the women of Siam play out the anti-slavery narrative, the story draws attention to both the beauty of The King and I’s stunning spectacle, and its ever-present problems with dated stereotypes.
The Opera House drops anchor into a mesmerising Siam, awash with sumptuous sets and period costumes, but the multiple love stories that lay the foundations of this classic are shaped around cringe-worthy culture clashes. Audiences may relish in the model soundtrack including Getting to Know You, but its harmful regurgitations of Shall I Tell You What I Think of You centring around Anna as the moral compass of Siam, highlights a few of the social ideals that have moved on since its 1951 release.
While the sweet and warm Anna whistles away the worry of the immoral men she is forced to address, the heartless ruler, who takes women as gifts and beats them into submission is finally broken by his resistance to change. Its aspirational narrative attempts to reject the superficial offers that Anna brings, with songs that poke fun of the grand gowns Anna adorns. But it embraces the kings 90 plus wives and almost as many children speaking in simplistic pidgin English who dote on him silently. The balance is not tipped with the addition of Western People Funny, sung by the King's chief wife, Lady Thiang (played by Cexarah Bonner). The song that allows her and the collection of wives to sing about the pinching shoes, puffy skirts and sentimentality of the Western world is no match for its leading lady referring to the people of Siam as playing “the part of a toad” by grovelling at the king's feet.
Beyond its opulent settings and catchy tunes, The King and I has become too dated to enjoy wholeheartedly. By its second act, after the theatrics of The Small House of Uncle Thomas have reminded audiences of Siam’s torturous king who wishes to whip his women into line, it's difficult to see this king as anything but a prop. With pantomime villainy that causes an audience member to cry out “barbarian” to its staged actor, the stories problems are glaring to anyone willing to look beyond its music. While the show maintains it is a love story at its core, its overall message is heart-breaking in more ways than one.