Book: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Director: Bartlett Sher
Reviewer: Matt Forrest
As soon as the steamer glides onto the stage, you hear the opening note of I Whistle A Happy Tune, you know you’re in safe hands and are about to be treated to something special. For the arrival of the huge boat into the Opera House heralds the opening of the Rogers & Hammerstein theatrical behemoth The King and I.
Director Bartlett Sher’s award-winning production has transferred from the Westend to a full UK and Ireland tour and boy does it deliver! Loosely based on a true story, this is the tale of the recently widowed Anna Leonowens, (Annalene Beechey) who along with her young son Louis, head to Siam where Anna has taken a position teaching the many children of the King (Jose Llana).
A broken promise leads to initial conflict between the King and Anna; as his royal highness realises, he has more than met his match with the feisty school teacher who won’t be pushed around. Soon Anna begins to win over the King and his court, whilst the King learns that Anna can be a useful tool when fighting off the threat of colonisation.
There is so much to admire about this show. Aesthetically it’s a joy; sumptuous costumes filled with bright colours designed by Catherine Zuber. Mix that with a bold, lavish set design from Michael Yeargan, giving it that 1950’s golden age of Hollywood magic. This is helped by some outstanding set pieces, beautifully choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, which include the epic ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomasand my own personal favourite scene, The March of Siamese Children. These are just two scenes of many that demonstrate the high production values the show has at its disposal.
The main problem concerning staging The King and I in 2019 is that at its core it has some highly questionable aspects to its story involving racism, sexism and colonialism that still make the show problematic. However, to counteract this the production lets its two stars carry the load, and they do so fantastically well. Beechey gives a touching yet fiery performance as Anna; she may be the heroine of the piece but it’s a title she certainly doesn’t crave. The production focuses on Anna’s strength as an independent woman, rather that of a Westerner coming to save the day and is all the better for doing so. Llana gives a comedic, almost clown-like portrayal of a good man, let down by tradition and his own ignorance. The two have undoubted chemistry and it shines through.
The supporting cast are on fine form throughout with highlights being an ensemble rendition of Getting to Know You, and a scene-stealing turn by Cezarah Bonner on Something Wonderfularguably the musical performance of the show.
There is the odd quibble: the relationship between the King’s concubine Tuptim (Kamm Kunaree), Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao) and Anna is hardly touched upon in the first act however it is of high importance at the end. However, these are minor issues with what is a vibrant, energetic and entertaining production that still sets the bar high for what musical theatre can and should be.
Runs until 11 May 2019 | Image: Johann Persson