Book and Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Director: Bartlett Sher
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Originally produced in 1951 about a small Asian country struggling to retain its independence and identity in the nineteenth century, one might ask what can The King and I offer now, nearly 160 years after the events it portrays and nearly 70 years after its first production? The answer is that the struggle between clinging to one set of beliefs and embracing change remains relevant. And, of course, at the heart of the show is a rather sweet romance.
The King of Siam is concerned. He sees many of his neighbours becoming ‘protectorates’ of European powers. He is under pressure to transform his country so that he can protect his people and values. Part of his strategy is to appoint Anna Leonowens as governess to his children, to teach them and his favoured wives about the world beyond the borders of Siam. Not all goes smoothly, however; the king is an absolute monarch and not used to anything other than fawning adoration: he certainly doesn’t expect to be stood up to and argued with, and especially not by a woman.
Jose Llana brings us the king, having played him in the Broadway production. He brings just the right amount of puzzlement to the role. Childlike at times, we see his emotions as he struggles to cope with the troublesome woman he has engaged, making him a curious mix of strength and vulnerability. Palace protocol requires him always to be right; Llana shows us his inner doubts: the scene in which Anna and he need to find some way that she, a woman, can advise him on how to deal with a British delegation is quite delicious.
Fresh from the West End production is Annalene Beechey as Anna. She moves convincingly from disquiet that the king is an absolute monarch who can make decisions on a whim and who can accept a gift from a neighbouring king of the woman to an understanding of his point of view, even if she cannot align herself to it. Neither can admit the growing affection they feel for one another – the nearest being the scene in which she teaches the king the polka and they fly around the stage, apparently carefree in one another’s arms. This is a scene of great beauty and poignancy, especially when the bubble is burst abruptly and the king needs to attend to more serious matters.
There is, nevertheless, plenty of humour to leaven some of the more challenging themes. The Royal children are, of course, charming, each with a distinct personality – their presentation to Anna is really rather beautiful
Supporting the king and Anna is Lady Thiang (Cezarah Bonner), the king’s chief wife. Bonner’s Thiang is knowing and majestic and has an exceptionally fine singing voice. Her rendition of Something Wonderful is a showstopping performance, full of light, shade, longing and love.
This revival first appeared at the Lincoln Center Theater and has been described as sumptuous. While the costumes and set pieces easily live up to that tag, the stage seems rather empty much of the time. When Anna and her young son arrive at the docks in Siam, the stage is positively teeming with life as they float in on a rather grand ship. But once in the palace, the stage remains largely bare. An ingenious system of moving pillars helps set the various scenes, but one can’t help but feel that the space is slightly underused – with notable exceptions during, for example, Shall We Dance?
If you’re tiring of the endless bonhomie of festive fare, and long for something more substantial than panto, then The King and I fits the bill. Full of sublime music, excellent singing and truly touching moments, it’s a cracking night out. At its heart, The King and I is about love and sexual politics and as such does, indeed, remain relevant today. As long as one group seeks to subjugate another, its themes will continue to resonate.
Runs until 4 January 2020 and on tour | Image: Johan Persson