What's up in Siam? This week, Pages & Stages attended a performance of the Eldorado Children's Theatre and Teen Players' production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's The King and I.---
Since its publication in 1944, Margaret Landon's Anna and the King of Siam, based on Anna Leonowens' 19th-century memoirs, its myriad adaptations and their respective political correctness (or perceived lack thereof) have been the subject of some debate. But that hasn't stopped Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I from becoming one of the best-loved works of musical theater ever to come from Broadway.
The story, for the uninitiated, begins with Anna Leonowens arriving in Siam (present-day Thailand) on invitation from King Mongkut to teach his children English and the customs of the West. What begins as a simple schoolmistress position leads to a conflicted yet deep-set relationship between Anna and the king, where each is influenced by the other's beliefs and manner.
Various adaptations of Landon's original book—including, most recently, the 1999 film Anna and the King—have received harsh criticisms if not outright rejection in Thailand. The concept of an English woman entering a foreign country and winning the trust of its king is overshadowed by issues of colonialism and national pride. Moreover, the image of King Mongkut as a shirtless, unsophisticated tyrant who beats his wives, as he is generally portrayed in The King and I, reeks of cultural stereotyping. At the same time, the king's character also is quite human, often wondering how to be the best king he can be and how to instruct his son, Prince Chululongkorn, to best serve his people.
This dichotomy requires a fine balance of sincerity and charm, pulled off with surprising ease by the 18-year-old JD Bray-Morris. Bray-Morris' performance conjures memories of Yul Brynner in the 1956 film adaptation. Bray-Morris' co-star, Sydney Duettra (15), complements his idiosyncrasies with a true-to-text interpretation of Anna as polite and maternal, but also playful and pensive. Duettra handles the musical numbers with gusto, and the on-stage chemistry achieved between the two actors—such as when the king insists that Anna's head must never be higher than his own and then proceeds to recline further and further until both are lying on the floor—helps to bring the characters to life.
The rest of the cast (including a handful of rotating members) also does the play justice. Phoenix Avalon commands considerable stage presence as the young Prince Chululongkorn, and Alli Brimacombe brings to life the role of the Burmese Princess Tuptim, eliciting both compassion for her plight as a woman forced to be with a man other than the one she loves and as a strong-willed individual, capable of leading a play-within-a-play that challenges the traditions of the country in which she lives and standing up to the king that oppresses her. The play-within-a-play in question, in the scene The Small House of Uncle Thomas, is performed as a full ballet with its own cast. The detail put into this one scene, along with other notables (such as the royal children's entrance), shows the time and effort that these young players commit to their craft.
THE KING AND I
Friday, Dec. 10.
Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 11 and 12
James A Little Theater
1060 Cerrillos Road