Listen to Anna Leonowens sing about her differences with the King of Siam, and you’ll see how exasperating a culture clash can be.
“How I wish I’d called him that! Right to his face! Libertine! And while we’re on the subject, Sire. There are certain goings-on around this place that I wish to tell you I do not admire.
“I do not like polygamy, or even moderate bigamy. I realize that in your eyes that clearly makes a prig o’ me.
“But I am from a civilized land called Wales! Where men like you are locked in county jails!”
“There’s a lot of tension between the two of them, beginning with her insistence that she wants a house of her own,” said Mike Gallagher, who designed the set for “The King and I” at Music Box Playhouse in Swoyersville.
The house is just the beginning of their verbal sparring, which covers just about every topic from the practice of prostrating oneself before the king to fashion whims. Englishmen must be very aggressive, the king observes, when Anna describes a hoop skirt as a circle of protection.
For her part Anna is aghast at the treatment of women in Siam, especially the plight of a slave named Tuptim. The king insists he has to appear strong before his people, so he must take harsh measures to separate Tuptim from her lover, Lun Tha.
“Anna calls him a barbarian when he raises his whip (to beat Tuptim). He throws it down and runs off stage,” Gallagher said. “In a way, she has broken a certain spirit in him. There is that conflict within himself between the old and the new. But there’s a certain amount of contradiction because in Western culture, slavery was existing in America at the same time it existed in Thailand.”
“The barbarian doesn’t exist in just one place.”
Fans of Rodgers and Hammerstein will take delight in the score, which includes such favorites as “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Shall We Dance” and “Hello, Young Lovers.”
“There was a time when great singers like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Perry Como, they were singing these songs,” Gallagher said. “Anybody and everybody were singing ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ and if you turned on the radio, that’s what you were listening to. Even the music to the ‘March of the Siamese Children’ is rich and filled with melody. It’s a classic.”
Speaking of the Siamese children, the cast includes 14 young actors to portray those roles. In the ballet scene, “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” they appear holding snowflakes and other props to indicate what’s happening as the slave Eliza escapes from Simon Legree in Tuptim’s version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“The children come on with pieces that look like snowflakes and sticks with silver streamers. The scene imitates the Jerome Robbins vision, with floating fabric to represent waves. It’s very nicely done.”
If your thoughts are turning to love this Valentine’s Day weekend, you might ask yourself if Anna and the king ever come to love each other.
“That has always been a debatable question,” Gallagher said. “I’m sure there is a strong affection between the two of them. I don’t know if it gets to the point of actual love, but I think there’s a deep respect.”