MusicalReviewSouth West

The King and I – New Theatre, Cardiff

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels

Book and lyrics: Rodgers and Hammerstein

Music: Richard Rodgers

Director: Bartlett Sher

One first saw The King and I performed some six decades ago at the London Palladium, starring the charismatic matinee idol Yul Brynner. So – what is it that still makes a new production such as this an ongoing success? Partly the wonderful music, with memorable songs and dance numbers, but also in giving the audience an insight into the mores of the era – the 1860s, when colonialism was still in existence and long before the word ‘woke’ came into everyday usage.

The storyline centres around British governess Anna Leonowens, played by Annalene Beechey, who is engaged by none other than the King of Siam (now Thailand) to educate his children and his many wives. Co-starring with Beechey is Darren Lee as the King of Siam. Lee is an actor of many talents, directing as well as performing being among his skills. Portraying the irascible yet lovable King showcases both Lee’s considerable acting ability and vocal skills. Lee gives a believable performance as a thinking man – a monarch struggling against the winds of time and finding that life “Is a puzzlement.”

As Anna, Beechey’s performance is reminiscent of the iconic performance given by Deborah Kerr in the original Uk stage production of the musical. Beechey’s Anna, however, is more middle class, speaking with less clear vowels but that is no bad thing. The chemistry between the two is slow to come to the boil, but when it does so is palpable. Worthy of special note in the role of Lady Thang is Cezarah Bonner who gives a sympathetic and polished performance, while Marienella Phillips’s Tuptim has the right balance of naivety and perception of what is to come.

Impossible when writing about this iconic musical not to mention the King of Siam’s children – a delight here with individual star quality performances.

A caveat when reviewing this particular performance has to be the difficulty in hearing some of the dialogue, although rectified when sung or spoken front of stage. Nevertheless, overall, this 2023 revival has much to offer. Set design by Michael Yeargar manages both to be faithful to the original and innovative – the gold Buddha towering over all in the second half is inspirational. Worthy of a special mention is Christopher Gattelli’s atmospheric choreography throughout, spectacular in the blend of traditional Thai (still seen today in Indonesia) and modern, as seen in the ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas, danced with grace and fluidity. Costumes by Catherine Zuber, excellent throughout, are spot-on.

The original Rodgers and Hammerstein music and songs such as I Whistle a Happy Tune and Hello Young Lovers in the first half, and the foot-tapping Shall We Dance in Act 2 are what makes this musical an all- time favourite across the years.

Runs until Saturday, November 25th in Cardiff, then continues touring.

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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