By Anna DeNoia
Love it or hate it, when it comes to musical theatre, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is about as classic as it gets. When Anna, a European school teacher, travels to Siam to teach the children of the strong-willed King, their points of view collide over and over again. While this story, first staged in 1951, has fallen out of favor with many musical theatre lovers due to the colonial nature of the narrative, Drury Lane’s production does an impressive job honoring the classic while skillfully cutting through to the timely human issues at the story’s core.
Betsy Morgan in the role of Anna shines as the narrative’s leader. From the first happy tune she whistles, she puts her audience at ease with her steadfast honesty and quick wit. Morgan is self-assured, confident and practical, while still easily creating space for the somber sentimentality of the love songs. Starring opposite Morgan as the King of Siam, Adam Jacobs brings inextricable charm, humanity, and humor to the often obtuse and self-righteous leader. Earnest in his puzzlement, it is easy for the audience to connect and sympathize with this King’s sense of duty and desire to improve, even during his more brutal moments.
Morgan and Jacobs are accompanied by strong performances from their supporting cast, most notably the gorgeous soaring soprano of Paulina Yeung as Tuptim, as well as the impressive talent of young Matthew Uzarraga as Prince Chulalongkorn, whose genuine struggle to understand the mechanics and limits his father’s wisdom and duty ground the story in a sincere promise of change. Electric at the center of this production’s success however is the charged chemistry between Anna and the King. The taste of oil and water is delicious and addicting from the first, as they butt heads until strong willed frustration slowly melts into respect and affection.
Those familiar with the King and I will have high expectations for the costumes—the show is known for both its gilt Siamese palaces as well as Anna’s many iconic gowns. Designer Izumi Inaba does not disappoint. The royals are adorned with wonderful glimmering detail, while Anna is breathtaking spinning in her classic pink silk for the seminal “Shall We Dance”. What audiences may not expect, however, is how truly funny this production is. The talented cast bounces off of each other so easily, skillfully pushing each other’s buttons in such a way that laugh after laugh is joyfully earned and shared.
This consistent levity remains balanced however, never overpowering the powerful message of this infamous classic. Modern audiences have hesitated to embrace this piece, turning up their noses at the admittedly troubling saviorism inherent in a story of a white woman coming to change the ways of an eastern nation. This clever cast however, led by director Alan Paul, approaches this piece with incredible respect for each perspective, allowing the central story of embracing points of view different from our own to shine through. Drury Lane’s production of The King and I is a heartfelt, humorous, human love letter to musical theatre, as well an ever-timely lesson the ways in which we can learn from one another and the dignity we all deserve.
The King and I runs through May 22nd at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. For tickets or more information, please call (630) 530-0111 or visit drurylanetheatre.com.
Photos by Brett Beiner.