Adam Jacobs as the King stands left in red and gold silk embroidered tunic and trousers. Betsy Morgan as Anna is in a white Victorian gown.
Adam Jacobs and Betsy Morgan in Drury Lane Theatre's The King and I. Credit: Brett Beiner

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1951 musical The King and I, based on Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam, is one of the warhorses of musical theater. The original run was three years (1,246 performances), and it has been revived with a mind-numbing regularity since, produced seemingly by every professional and amateur theater at one time or another. And why wouldn’t it? It contains almost nothing a middlebrow, middle-class, white, heterosexual audience could object to—no sex, no overt political messages, and it features a squirming gaggle of kids running around the stage. 

The King and I
Through 5/22: Wed 1:30 PM, Thu 1:30 and 8 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM, Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, 630-530-0111,, $64-$79.

On the surface, the story concerns a British governess who comes to the court of the king of Siam and teaches him, his children, and the court to do things the correct way, which is to say the late Victorian British way. (To tilt things further in the direction of European superiority, the Siamese court was often portrayed, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, by white actors in yellowface.) At least that’s how I read the show growing up in the mid-60s, in my middlebrow, middle-class, white, heterosexual, small-town, southern Illinois bubble. 

I should have known R & H were after something deeper than this. 

One of the beauties of Drury Lane’s current revival (and there are many) is that it strips away much if not all of the quaint G&S-style Orientalism that has marred earlier productions and muddied the message of a show that, though told from the point of view of the governess, works hard to provide as clear-eyed a view of the historic court of King Mongkut of Siam as you can provide in a three-hour Broadway musical.  

Hammerstein’s book and lyrics undercut any smug notions that the European way of doing things is best. The show climaxes in a scene where we are invited to laugh at the preposterous native costumes of the Victorians—hoop skirts, gloves, and insanely painful shoes—that the Siamese court must wear to “prove” they are not barbarians. The show even contains a devastating song, “Western People Funny,” that is quite the subversive dig at 19th-century-style imperialism.

They think they civilize us
Whenever they advise us
To learn to make the same mistake
That they are making too!  

Director Alan Paul wisely avoids yellowface. Most of the major characters in the court are played by Asian actors. The actor who plays the king himself, Adam Jacobs, is of Filipino heritage on his mother’s side; his portrayal of King Mongkut is powerful and dignified. He avoids any of the thundering cartoonish buffoonery that Yul Brynner (and others) indulged in. 

Together, Jacobs and Betsy Morgan (as the governess, Anna) have a palpable chemistry. Even though there is no romance in the relations between the King and Anna, the spark between them adds drama to even the most routine interactions (such as a negotiation for a raise in Anna’s monthly salary).

The result is a production that does not take sides in the clash of East and West. Or rather it errs on the side of self-rule and adaptation. (One of the hallmarks of King Mongkut’s reign is that he avoided being “protected” by French and English colonial powers the way countries around him—Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam—were.) 
More importantly, all that is great about the original show (and it is a remarkable show, still powerful 70-plus years later) is visible in this production, packed with strong singers, able actors, and dancers who, led by choreographer Darren Lee, effortlessly bring Jerome Robbins’s original dances to life. But for all the tinsel and glitter on stage, all the dazzling costumes and soaring tunes, the simple story—about two stubborn people who butt heads and then learn from each other—still moves us.