Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: What makes ‘The King and I' great musical theater?

The unexpected ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas'

APPLETON, Wis. - When a reviewer falls out of a tree and breaks an ankle in three places, Plan B goes into effect. I beg to put before you my Plan B for covering the Lincoln Center Theater production of “The King and I” that is playing at Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

Having seen professional and community productions, I will pick out the sequence that makes “The King and I” stand out as great.

It is a seemingly unlikely spectacle that catches audiences off guard.

The title of the sequence is “Small House of Uncle Thomas.”

The thing takes up 15 minutes in the middle of the show.

Through intriguing music, exotic costumes and the perspective of isolated Siam of the 1860s, the piece depicts the story of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of America.

In one sense, the sequence is the Siamese trying to get a grip on what the United States is about based on the famous story of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

“Small House of Uncle Thomas” is presented as a lesson to the king of Siam, who is admired but needs some finishing in the human relations department.

The piece is a dazzling interpretation by composer Richard Rodgers and dramatist Oscar Hammerstein II.

The characters and story of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” are told through the eyes of everyday Siamese. This is a huge mind flip.

In “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Kentucky is a kingdom that is ruled by the wicked Simon Legree,   snow is a miracle, Buddha is a presence and the name of Stowe ends with a very high “e.” Unhappy slave Eliza has run away and given pursuit by Simon Legree and hounds. Eliza makes her way to “very happy people,” Uncle Tom, Little Eva, Little Topsy, and Eliza’s lover, George. A sacrifice is made to Buddha.

In abstract ways, this is Rodgers and Hammerstein being their social-conscience and progressive selves.

Woven into their lovely and lustrous music are important statements.

An example from “South Pacific” is “They Must Be Carefully Taught,” about bias.

“The King and I” premiered in 1951 as the United States wrestled with contradictions.

Rodgers and Hammerstein dealt with this in the ballet “Small House of Uncle Thomas” with enticing beauty.

The show still is filled with such enduring and adorable songs as “Shall We Dance,” “Hello Young Lovers” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”

Most people are naturally attracted to them and think first of those songs when they think of “The King and I.”

To me, the fairness that Rodgers and Hammerstein sought makes this another of their great shows from the golden age of American musicals.

All this says nothing about the production that is playing for seven more performances in Thrivent Financial Hall of the PAC (foxcitiespac.org). Not being able to attend, I can’t say anything about that. But I do know one phenomenal thing “The King and I” has going for it.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays.


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