Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The King and I
Music by: Richard Rogers
Book and Lyrics by: Oscar Hammerstein
Directed by: Bartlett Sher
Choreographed by: Christopher Gattelli
Company: Broadway at the Hobby Center
Run dates: Through March 19, 2017
Last month, as I was waiting for the curtain to rise on An American in Paris, my plus one turned to me and asked if I thought this show was something she’d want take her children to. You could, I said. I mean it’s technically appropriate for a young audience. But I don’t think they’d like it.
Three hours later, after a quite lovely production, my plus one agreed. Gorgeous but overly long dance numbers, a love story that doesn’t really cause us to swoon and ultimately forgettable characters wouldn’t cut it for her tots.
In fact, this season of musicals has been a tough one for parents wanting to either introduce their children to the miracles of live theater or continue developing their burgeoning interest. Rocky Horror Picture Show and Book of Mormon were definite no goes for the younger set. The satire of big business that is How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying isn’t exactly bulls-eye interest for kiddies. In the Heights could work for a younger audience but the tear jerky death of a beloved character and the sexual innuendo might be too much for some sensitive souls. Without the nostalgia for the music, Jersey Boys holds little sway for children. Into the Woods was billed as a holiday show, but the second act with its dark themes and markedly unhappy ending may be just too much for kids to handle. For those that haven’t already seen it or wanted to see it again, Lion King made a pit stop and Finding Neverland is coming up…but still…these are slim pickings for a family theater night out.
Then in steps The King and I. In town at the Hobby Center for only one week, it’s a show you not only could take your kids to; it’s a show that you should.
Now, I’ll admit that I have a distinct personal bias baked into that recommendation. The King and I was the first musical I ever saw (age 9) and it’s a show I’ve loved ever since. But it’s not just warm childhood memories that fuel my endorsement. This production of takes what I (and most likely many adults) remember from this beloved show and revives it to grand splendor.
The version on stage here in Houston comes to us from New York’s Lincoln Center Theater where this critically acclaimed production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I was directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher. If those names mean nothing to you – take note of the fact that it won four 2015 Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical. Deservedly so, I strongly maintain.
So then why is this show such a good bet for a young audience? Topline, the story of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens who travels to Siam to teach the King’s many wives and children is funny, the musical numbers are terrific, the characters are easy to love and it’s an utterly digestible narrative no matter one’s age. But more specifically, I feel that there are several important things that children can get from this highly entertaining show.
Kids on Stage
Who doesn’t love watching adorable kids on stage doing one heck of a professional job? We all do, right? But y’know who loves it more than us adults? Our kids.
Watch their eyes light up when they see actors their age dressed in costume and having a grand old time in service to the story. We all go to the theater to see ourselves and our stories represented on stage and for kids, this means watching other kids.
Whether this means they connect better to the story/art form or even possibly get the acting bug themselves – exposing our kids to other children in a show creates an interest that lays the foundation for life long theater lovers.
Culturally correct casting
If you follow theater news, you’ve probably read a lot lately about issues of culturally appropriate casting and matters of racial representation on stage. To make it simple, this is often about casting roles with actors who are of the same ethnicity as the character.
In this respect, The King and I scores big. The entire Siamese host of characters are played by Asian actors, requiring not one ounce of makeup approximation or other questionable smoke and mirror tactics to create the desired effect.
Regardless how you feel about the whole, who gets to tell whose story on stage debate, there’s no doubt that exposing children of all backgrounds to actors of color is a good thing. It shows them that not only white folks can be the stars and that talent goes far deeper than one’s outer packaging.
As a young girl watching this show, I remember being struck by how strong and smart and influential the character of Anna is. With a firm hand absent of any rudeness, she stands up for herself and others, demands to be treated as equal and as a result wins the respect and love of everyone around her. Even the King.
Now when I say love, I mean it in the most platonic of ways. Blessedly this isn’t a show that devolves into a schmaltzy love story between the two protagonists. Anna and The King come to love each other as friends, nothing more, and for a 1950’s musical that is quite a feat.
Is there a better message to give our children – this notion that women are strong and deserving of admiration? That they don’t need rescuing or kid gloving and they can and should fight for what they believe in. That men and women can love each other as friends.
Frankly, this lesson alone is reason enough to take your children to this show.
Just because Anna and the King are friends doesn’t mean they approve or like everything the other does. The King take acceptation to the way Anna dresses and behaves and more seriously, Anna takes acceptation to the King’s polygamy and treatment of women and subjects/servants in general.
Yes there is some European superiority baked into the story, this ‘we English know better’ attitude, but it does get tempered elsewhere. A wonderful number by the wives decrying how the English try to change them, goes a long way in showing how ridiculous the West has been in foisting their values on the East.
What we take from this is that even though we’re different, we can learn to understand and honor each other while at the same time standing up for what we believe in. A reach across the aisle moment so to speak.
And I don’t think I need to tell anyone at this time why we need this message now more than ever.
But what about the sad/scary parts?
OK so sure, these are all good things for kids to see/hear…but what about the one scene that almost turns violent and the two deaths in the show?
My answer to this is that it’s Anna’s strength of character that stops a slave from being whipped. Indeed it’s a tense scene, but right wins out over wrong, no one is hurt and we are happy for it. For kids it’s a punishment that wasn’t deserved being righted. They can stomach that.
As for the two deaths – One we are simply told of which, while sad, doesn’t have great impact. The other, namely the death of the King at the end of the show, is handled so graciously and without melodrama that I can’t imagine any child being upset or put off by it. They may not even really know it happened.
On my way to the parking garage I overheard a mother and daughter talking about the show. “So is the King sick”, asked the young girl? The mother explained that no, he wasn’t ill, he had died. “Well how did he die”, she asked. A simple explanation of his heart being sick and stopping was given. The girl thought about it for a moment and then said, “It was such a fun show Mommy, can we see it again?”
I wanted to stop and hug both of them right then and there. I want to hug every adult that takes a child to this performance. But instead I’ll just say Bravo for starting them young.