REVIEW: Classic Broadway musical examines traditions and cultural change

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” / Courtesy photo

The battle lines in the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” are very clearly drawn. Tradition battles progressivism. Eastern culture collides with Western culture. A misanthrope clashes against a powerful woman. The isolated country of Siam is threatened by European colonialism, and so forth.

But the resolutions to these story threads is a little less clear than their establishment. Change takes time, we learn in “The King and I,” which takes the stage at the Walton Arts Center through Oct. 8.

How much time? Decades, and it starts more slowly if you aren’t sure you want to make it. We begin the show by watching widowed British schoolteacher Anna arrive by boat in Siam (now Thailand) with her young son. Despite living in the palace, she gets an audience with the king for the first time many months later.

What: “The King and I”
When: Through Oct. 8
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: $54-$93
Tickets: Call 479-443-5600 or visit

The king has brought Anna to the country to provide a Western education to his many wives and children. She brings with her a sense of defiance not often seen in those who address the king. The relationship that develops between them is complicated by cultural and class issues. The story is based on the book “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon, which is based on the real-life interactions between Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam.

What transpires is vintage Rodgers & Hammerstein, the duo famous for a string of Broadway hits such as “Oklahoma,” “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music.” Like those shows, “The King and I” has dark threads running through it, several catchy songs and a wholesome outlook. Like “Oklahoma,” it features an extended, dreamy ballet sequence. For “The King and I,” the dance is an interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in this instance called “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Such malaprops are featured throughout the musical.

Like the ballet sequence with its ornate costuming and flawlessly executed movements, the touring production visiting Fayetteville is a very stylized show. I left particularly impressed with the set, and its moving pieces add a real sense of life to the production.

Throughout the cast, we see dozens of performers, a requirement to show all of the king’s court and his many children. There is little doubt of the talent of the cast. Leads Laura Michelle Kelly (who plays Anna) and Jose Llana (the king) both have extensive credits on Broadway and/or London’s West End. The opening night performance featured an understudy, Q Lim, in the role of Tuptim. She might have had the most classically trained, operatic voice of any of the performers last night. The cast is strong from top to bottom.

“The King and I” is interesting to consider as a musical written more than 65 years ago. And it’s also insightful to think about a world 150 years ago when kings had direct rule over countries, one where polygamy was a way of life for many cultures and where America was fighting its own civil war. Slavery in the United States is no more, and the slavery/indentured servitude of the Siamese kingdom is also gone. But Thailand nearly had a civil war of its own in 2014, and political unrest remains. As often as things repeat themselves, there is always change afoot.

With the great exception of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. Those are always what you expect.