Whistle a Happy Tune!! ASE art critic, Sharon Lorenzo, goes to the theater
In 1944 English author Margaret Landon wrote a novel entitled Anna and the King of Siam, based on a truthful memoir written in the early 1860’s by a Welsh Army widow, Anna Leonowens. It was an exciting exotic tale of a young widow and her son traveling to Thailand to educate the children of the royal household where polygamy and male chauvinism dominated that Asian culture. In 1950 a theatrical attorney, Fanny Holtzmann, was looking for a part for her client, Gertrude Lawrence. The story evolved with Gertrude herself arranging for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to write the musical lyrics. While they all had hoped that Rex Harrison would play the King, he was unavailable. Yul Brynner stepped into the role in 1951 and completed 4,625 performances before his death in 1985. In addition to the film production, there was a Broadway revival in 1996 and this second round by director, Bartlett Sher, has been such a hit that it appears to have an open run that will continue for many more months in this new year.
Yul Brynner as the King of Siam
Twenty- nine musicians play in the orchestra for a production which is visually and acoustically magnificent in the Beaumont Theater. Without any visible microphones, the stars project their voices to the highest level in the theater where not one seat has an obstructed view. The opening scene of a naval yacht landing in the waterfront of Bangkok is a staging feat supreme . The choreography of a multimember cast of small children is an additional technical mastery by Chris Gattelli. New York Times theater critic, Ben Brantley says it is an epic sweep of intimate sensibility with panoramic and personal details.
Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe
Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam is a commanding presence with his Japanese accent and masterful physique, reminiscent from his performance in the Last Samurai film. Kelli O’Hara is a sparky counterpoint to the regal dominance of the King, with her strong will and bossy pants attitude. At age 39, she is a married mother with two young children from Oklahoma City, where she majored in music at the University. She has already won the Tony award in 2015 for the best performing actress in this production.
It is curious that this play is still banned in Thailand because the depiction of the royal family seems to upset the Thai people. The interpretation by the children of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its slave heritage seems rather timely in this era of religious and cultural crisis. It is a truthful story that indeed at the death of the Thai king in 1861, his 57-year old brother, Mongkut became the next regent and asked his agent in Singapore to find a teacher for his many children and wives. The costumes and dancing by the cast are adorable and what Brantley called, “a five handkerchief masterpiece”. 
Anna and the children
We must also remember that Thailand is the only nation in Asia that escaped domination as a colonial acquisition by a European nation. It was ruled as an absolute monarchy until 1932 by the royal family and became a democracy in 1992. We can only speculate how the Thai people would have enjoyed the marvelous songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein that are so unforgettable: “Whistle a Happy Tune, We Kiss in the Shadows, Something Wonderful and Hello Young Lovers”, to mention just a few.
Timeless creativity such as this production is never repetitive in my view. The words, dancing, and entire performance ring true each time I encounter this wonderful tale. Don’t miss a chance to see Kelli and Ken bring you a delightful three hours of entertainment. You will definitely leave the theater whistling a happy tune!
Sharon Lorenzo January 2016