Can 'The King and I' change with the times?

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote, inarguably, most of the great American musicals of the 20th century: titles such as "Oklahoma!," "Carousel," "South Pacific" and "The King and I" are peerless in their craft, artistry and popular appeal.

But as they say over at "Ragtime" (now performing in a heartfelt Griffin Theatre production at the Den Theatre), "Breaking my heart, Op'ning a door, Changing the world! New music!"

You can't exactly change the music for those classic musicals, and, of course, there would be no reason to do so. It is difficult to improve upon "Hello Young Lovers" or "If I Loved You" or "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'" But savvy directors — like, say, Bartlett Sher, whose Rodgers-and-Hammerstein revivals at New York's Lincoln Center have been remarkably fresh and vital interpretations — understand that adjustments have to be made to ensure that these timeless pieces of art reflect contemporary sensibilities and engage in conversations with our present moment.

The touring version of Sher's 2015 Lincoln Center revival of "The King and I" (starring Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana) begins performances in Chicago on June 14. Obviously, this is a beloved title. But it also now is oft-accused of Orientalism and of being a piece of feel-good art (complete with a white savior) for Western audiences that trades in the exoticism of the East. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Sher acknowledged those aspects of the show's history.

"But at the base of the show," Sher said, "you have a radical story about the education of women in a third-world country. I think it is crucial to have a design that strips away the exoticism that was common in the 1950s, and that helps you boil things down to the issue of the show: the transition from a traditional culture to what really was a modern, industrial culture."

Much of the appeal of "The King and I" rests along that axis, of course. Depending on choices made, you could see the 1951 piece (which was based on Margaret Landon's novel, "Anna and the King of Siam") as being the capitulation of the King of Siam to the values of Colonial Britain, or a parable of progressive enlightenment and its costs for a proud, traditional nation. And, of course, it is an interracial love story. How much of one always depends on the choices made in the production.

"The King and I" is an Equity tour and Sher argues that the new proscenium staging works better for some moments than the original thrust staging in the Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center. Sher, who directed the tour himself, also said that he felt like he had improved the momentum and the internal dynamics of the piece. And he said that he was always struck how well today's audiences responded to the "Game of Thrones"-like intrigue in the old musical, which is, after all, a tale of oppression and division.

And tolerance. Not unlike "South Pacific." Or "Oklahoma!"

"I do not think there was anything in the hearts of Rodgers and Hammerstein that wanted ever to tell anything other than a good, liberal story," Sher said. "Questions of democracy and human dignity are central to their works. I try not to answer any of those questions; I try to use 'The King and I' to pose them."

"The King and I" runs June 14 to July 2 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; 800-775-2000 and www.broadwayinchicago.com

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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