Hah! Here's one show you can't accuse of yellowface. Last night's Rodgers & Hammerstein 1951 musical The King & I, revived at the Royal Albert Hall, had so many Asian actors they must have emptied out every Chinatown in Britain. About thirteen kids and 20 or so women swamped the handful of white actors on the stage in something out of Margaret Thatcher's worst nightmare. How I laughed.
The latest King in a list that includes Yul Brynner, Jason Scott Lee and Chow Yun Fat, Daniel Dae Kim cuts a handsome dash as the barefoot monarch of 19th century Siam who'll do anything to avoid a charge of "barbarian", even importing an English governess, Anna Leonowens, played by Maria Friedman, who will tutor his (many) children and civilise the brute. (Hmm, do I really need to elucidate?)
As a Buffy and Angel fan I was keen to see DDK, who will always be evil lawyer Gavin Park of Wolfram & Hart to me. I'm pleased to see he's also notched up an impressive TV CV with Lost, CSI, Charmed, 24, The Shield, NYPD Blue, ER, Seinfeld (??? I don't remember him in that), Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise (oh well, there had to be at least one turkey) prominent.
Charismatic and handsome DDK may be, but a singing voice isn't his strong suit. Mind you, neither was Brynner's and the role cemented his career. Still, the other actors were phenomenal in this department. The two young lovers, Yanle Zhong as the rebellious Princess Tuptim (a gift to the King from Burma), and Ethen Le Phong, as her secret lover, Lun Tha, had powerful lungs and a sensitive delivery typical of the glory days of the stage musical. Their duet, We Kiss In A Shadow, had me quite teary and masking my snuffles as my current bronchitis.
My friend, David Yip (The Chinese Detective) as the King's Minister, didn't have to sing or dance but marched around as the power behind the throne, sounding most urbane and looking very professorial in his spectacles. I am so glad he didn't have to do "sinister" in this role.
The coup de theatre of the evening was the hilarious and spectacular show-within-a-show, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, staged by Princess Tuptim as a pointed indictment of the King and his insistence on mastery over the lives of his slaves despite his ambitions to be a "civilised" man and appease the British who are considering replacing him with their own puppet ruler.
The dancing, singing and choreography were a joy. Even my Lovely Companion, a rock 'n' roll/blues/trashkulchur fiend who complained that this was the worst thing I'd done to him since making him sit through Ivan The Terrible, Parts 1 AND 2, conceded that this visually lavish section was a delightful entertainment. I especially liked Uncle Tom, Little Eva and Topsy prancing Thai-fashion in white face. Heh!
The orientalism of The King & I is so transparent that I hope we know by now what we're looking at. The notion that the British project was to bring civilisation, a superior culture and democracy to "primitive" societies has been so thoroughly debunked, not least by the debacle of Iraq, that I hope we can all laugh at the show's assumptions. Cruelty, we now know, is not the unique attribute of that psychological landscape we know as the "Orient". British and US forces are as adept at this as was any eastern despot in history.
Suspend your critical faculties rather than bury them, and you will have a lovely evening. Personally, I found it to be a lot more honest that the execrable More Light, a modern regurgitation of orientalist stereotypes with a huge dollop of pretension and dumbed-down feminist politics without the excuse that it was written more than half a century ago. The King & I is a breath of fresh air by comparison.
Runs until Sunday 28th June 2009
Daniel Dae Kim, Maria Friedman, Jee Hyun Lim, Ethan Le Phong, Yanle Zhong, David Yip, Michael Simkins, Stephen Scott, Mischa Goodman, Hugo Yamaguchi, Miwa Saeki, Aiko Kato, Karen Cadogan, Victoria Sahakian Rogers, Adam Wong, Azumi Ono
Directed by Jeremy Sams
Musical director Gareth Valentine
Choreography Susan Kikuchi
Set and costume design Robert Jones
Lighting design Andrew Bridge
Sound design Bobby Aitken
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra