Book and lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Music: Richard Rodgers
Director: Bartlett Sher
Musical Director: Malcolm Forbes-Peckham
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
It takes quite a show to get Yorkshire folk onto their feet and applauding enthusiastically, cheers and tears both in evidence, and all this for a revival of an old standard. But this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I really is quite a show, and something of an emotional rollercoaster besides.
The King and I is the fifth of the legendary Broadway partnership’s highly successful musical productions and, like many of the others, it tackles some weighty issues rather than being content merely to divert and entertain. The story of widowed governess Anna Leonowens is based on true events in the 1860s when King Mongkut of Siam hired a western teacher for his many children as part of his efforts to modernise his country. The themes of gender conflict, slavery and imperial paternalism, pretty heavy stuff when The King and I hit the Broadway stage in 1951, do not detract from the show as a spectacle; indeed the original production and subsequent revivals have been notable for being spectacular visually, with Richard Rodgers’ magnificent score being one of his very best.
The Lincoln Center Theater production currently touring in this country has won multiple awards, and it’s easy to see why. The two main protagonists, governess Anna (Annalene Beechey) and the King of Siam (Jose Llana) are brilliantly portrayed, both individually and in terms of the palpable chemistry between the two performers. Llana brings to his performance an array of facial expressions and body language quirks that make his character – who, let’s not forget, has charges of barbarianism levelled at him – intensely loveable. The fact that he is tackling a role here so closely identified with the iconic Yul Brynner, whose performances as the King have long been considered as definitive, makes Llana’s achievement all the more admirable.
As the determined Mrs Leonowens, Annalene Beechey shines just as brightly; she is certainly no mere foil to the King’s tragicomic tour de force. The character is occasionally almost strident as she sticks up for her rights and seeks to enforce the promises made to her by the King, evoking memories of Deborah Kerr in the musical’s film treatment. But her voice is pure and clear, making Anna’s many famous numbers a genuine treat for the ears. Ms Beechey’s performance is also notable for her character’s empathy for the subplot young lovers; the wistfulness caused by her own widowhood comes through very clearly and poignantly as she wishes the impossible for the doomed Lun Tha (Ethan le Phong) and the enslaved Tuptim (Paulina Yeung). The scene in which Anna is introduced to the King’s multiple offspring, the March of the Siamese Children, is an early highlight of the show, the royal children’s fascination with Anna’s voluminous skirts being both cute and comical.
The production benefits from the light and shade of Bartlett Sher’s sympathetic direction, the pace varying according to the needs of the moment. The second act set-piece “Small House of Uncle Thomas” is brilliantly choreographed by Christopher Gattelli and feels a lot more integrated into the action of the piece than similar events in other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Based loosely on Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the narrated dance enables Tuptim to make her point about slavery and thwarted romance, indirectly igniting the climactic disagreement between Anna and the King.
Outside of the two love stories – for such is the dynamic between the King and his governess, though it remains unspoken – the standout performance is that of Cezarah Bonner as the King’s “chief wife” Lady Thiang. She moves nimbly through the production, seeing all and influencing events where she can, and Ms Bonner’s portrayal is all it could be. Her song “Something Wonderful”, towards the end of Act One, is both moving and thoroughly heart-warming.
Ably supporting the main characters are the Kralahome (Kok-Hwa Lie), Prince Chulalongkorn (Aaron Teoh with a fine singing voice) and Philip Bulcock in two roles as Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsay. As a spectacle, enhanced by a minimalist yet highly effective set, this is not to be missed – a nuanced and brilliant production that really does tick all the boxes.
Runs until 9th November, then touring | Image: Johan Persson