This classy production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical has much to recommend it says Emma Clarendon.
From New York to London and now enjoying a UK tour, Bartlett Sher’s elegant and stylish production of The King & I is such a warm and emotionally moving experience it would take a heart a stone not not enjoy this.
The story follows that of English school teacher Anna who has been hired by the King of Siam to teach his many wives and children as part of his idea to try and modernise the country. It follows the development of their relationship as their different cultures cause conflict, but soon develops into friendship and beyond. While some aspects of the story might make a modern audience wince (attitudes towards women – although it has to be said moments of violence towards them seem to have been cut out,some aspects of the portrayal of Thai culture), it is still a very moving story and features one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s finest scores. Yet what this production equally does well is to highlight and draw out other themes in the story including women’s rights and independence, slavery and attitudes towards relationships. Interestingly, I also felt that a strong focus is the king’s conflict about what is best for his country which adds extra depth – can a king or anybody know everything?
Having originally seen it at the London Palladium, it wouldn’t be fair to compare that to this – by necessity this touring production has had to scale back some of the visuals. But it is still no less impressive, with Michael Yeargan’s set designs effortlessly transporting the audience throughout the palace, with the help of different textures and materials to make it feel even more alive. Meanwhile, Catherine Zuber’s costumes allow for beautiful movement, while also highlighting the difference in cultures which leads to a really hilarious moment in the second act as the king’s wives dress in Western clothing while singing ‘Western People Are Funny’.
Sher’s production as much as it dazzles visually, can sometimes just lag in pace in places – particularly towards the end of the first act and could have been tightened up a bit further. However, this being said the updated book brings plenty of opportunities for comedy and to see just how the King and Anna’s relationship changes – thanks to the pitch perfect performances from the two central performers. Annalene Beechey as Anna may seem prime and proper but there is also a sense of steel beneath her performance that shows off the character’s inner strength in adversity. Her vocals are just a joy to listen to, particularly for songs such as ‘ Hello, Young Lovers’ delivered in such a rich and emotionally powerful way. Meanwhile, Brian Rivera has a cheeky twinkle in his eye as the king and his chemistry with Beechey is wonderful to witness.
But they are also supported by a fabulous supporting cast with Marienella Phillips performing beautifully as Tuptim – she delivers a raw and emotionally engaging performance with vocals that nearly took the roof off the theatre, while Caleb Lagayan as Prince Chulalongkorn blossoms as the character begins to form his own impressions as to what it would mean to be king.
Overall, this is an emotionally engaging and stunning revival of the classic musical.
By Emma Clarendon