The King and I – Edinburgh Playhouse

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II, Based upon Margaret Landon’s Anna and The King

Director: Bartlett Sher

Returning to Edinburgh, The Lincoln Centre Theater Production of The King and I may shrink aspects of the scale for touring reasons but sacrifice none of the spectacle or skill in the show. As the shimmering vermillion sun casts against a dark stage, the lustrous nature of the production offers an immediate sense of power and influence. While many of musical theatre’s fundamental ‘greats’ survive through dusty nostalgia gazes, Rodger & Hammerstein’sThe King and I is perhaps the most deserving of the term: it is unequivocally one of musical theatre’s greatest shows.

Charged to become the new Palace teacher to the King of Siam’s many (many) children, though mainly those in his favour, Anna docks in this distant land to find one where the customs may not align with her English ways, though neither do her ways sit comfortably with all of the locals at first. Seeking to perform and stand out on the ever-growing world stage, the King wants to bring a touch of the West’s philosophy to his kingdom.

Upon the deck of Michael Yeargan’s trundling steamship, Annalene Beechey returns to the Edinburgh Playhouse to spark the stage with triumph and talent, flourishing with an abundant charm as the quintessential English rose, but with enough of a thorny grip to stand out amidst other more authoritative roles. Over the years, Beechey has become even more comfortable with the role – and given their stellar performances in 2019, this alone is strikingly impressive, possessing a stunning vocal tone and control, which whisps around the often percussive heavy score.

But what is theKing and I without a regal King? No stranger to the role within the US, Brian Rivera initially makes for a less intimidating figure, but one where his royal authority is never questioned. Rivera’s King of Siam commands a reverence in his stature and manner, but never really shakes away the comfort of being a father. His natural harmony with Beechey cements the pair as an ideal pairing lead, their chemistry and timing with one another as fine, if not finer than any production most will have seen.

Though renowned for some of musical theatre’s most impressively long-lasting songs includingI Whistle a Happy Tune,Getting to Know YouandHello Young Lovers, whatThe King and Itruly has going for it rests within the feet of it all, the dance, the movement, and choreography – especially for the number the entire theatre has been waiting for:Shall We Dance. Simply beautiful, it’s here Beechey and Rivera encapsulate the production and where the narrative has been building too. In this newest touring production, Bartlett Sher’s direction has found its strongest command of pacing, even with the three-hour runtime, never feels too lengthy or droll.

Even the usually stagnant (though always impressive) deviation from the story as the King’s “gift”from Burma, Tuptim presents a twenty-minute long adaptation of The Small House of Uncle Thomas for the King and visiting dignitaries has been honed to a tighter schedule which never drags, and becomes a stand-out demonstration of Jerome Robbins (later Christopher Gattelli) choreography – the leaps and sharp, pointed movements of Qinwen Xue and Horomi Toyooka as meld the traditional form with a storybook aesthetic.

The concept of ‘stage magic’ is casually tossed around too freely these days. And even with this touring production lacking the obvious intensity and scale of a lengthier in-house or staying production, whatThe King and I may lack is channelled twice as hard into the storytelling and beauty of it all. Rightly claiming the standing ovations, it received, from the waltzing polka to the glints of darkness amidst the striking colours and set, The King and I is a rare piece of show stopping theatre, a part of the genre history which time and again returns to the stage to dazzle and enchant audiences all over again.

Runs until 16 September 2023 | Image: Matthew Murphy

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