Thursday 31st October 2019 at Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House.
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is really something wonderful to behold. Having secured glowing receptions in New York and London, this phenomenal production directed by Bartlett Sher is now touring, bringing a beloved classic to modern audiences with all the flair and whirlwind pace of the most accomplished large scale musicals. From the grand overture to the sentimental final scenes, this is a show which offers total blissful escapism in a world of grand theatrical spectacle.
Michael Yeargan’s set design establishes the callibre of this production instantaneously with the arrival of the ship. In our first glimpse of story and heroine, we’re made aware, in no uncertain terms, that what we’re about to see is going to be rich with detail and extravagance. Arrival to the palace brings with it all the glory we are led to anticipate, with transient set pieces moving us seamlessly from scene to scene. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are wearable art, with each detail of texture and stitching celebrated across both cultures and across the entire cast, but most especially in the traditional garments of the women and those famous exquisite dresses.
Following the tale of clashing cultures in 1862, the musical manages to remain thematically relevant as well as beloved. The delightfully prim British widow Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechey) journeys with her young son Louis (Joseph Black) to Bangkok to be school teacher to the children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). The unrelentingly upright British caricature is given soft edges through the character of Anna and the King’s obstinate nature, fuelled by tradition, is given a similarly light treatment for the most part. With two such distinctly different cultures coming together under one palace roof, everything from day to day clothing to posture and behaviours become ripe for entertaining exchanges.
But there is of course a much darker undertone belying the romantic, exuberantly plush central action. Anna must acclimatise to a culture in which women are grateful to be one of a collection of wives; where they have no status or import at all; where all people are lowly servants or slaves to the ruler of the land. In turn, the king must navigate the puzzling dynamic before him: though supplanted in a culture which remains deeply male-centric and traditional, a western woman demands respect and attention as something approaching a civilised equal. Good heavens!
Beechey and Llana are superb leads both in their own right and as a pairing. Beechey crafts Anna as a pristine heroine with Julie Andrews warmth and timeless leading lady class. Llana plays the brute, uncompromising male with a skilful comic edge, managing to deliver the king’s tantrums with both explosive force and disarming petulance. Their rapport builds gradually, offering a layer of credibility even within the hazy artificiality of all we see and their relationship evolves organically, moving between frustrations and puzzlement to coy attraction and flashes of delightful comedy.
As Anna and the King of Siam express their mutual dismay with the expectations and protocols of the other, the peripheral subjects of the palace become emotional focal points. Head Wife Lady Thiang (Cezarah Bonner) and right hand man Kralahome (Kok-Hwa Lie) pull strings as best they can from the sidelines, inconspicuously coaxing the two strangers into reciprocally beneficial exchanges in order to keep the palace a place of peace and learning. But each has their own woes too. When the master they serve and adore is troubled, their troubles in turn multiply and it’s in this passionate loyalty from a lowly status that such characters win our hearts.
The most dramatic and emotional elements of the King and I actually lies with the deeply sympathetic and passionate Tuptim (a very endearing Paulina Yeung). Given to the king as a gift, she finds herself torn between cultural expectations and matters of the heart which leave her tied up somewhere between the king and her heart’s true desire: Lun Tha (a perfectly cast Ethan Le Phong). In a sphere spinning on the axis of one individual, everyone must learn to navigate their encounters with the king, even Prince Chulalongkorn (a very sincere and comically reserved Aaron Teoh) who is next in line for the throne and feeling fretful about such responsibility.
Notable tunes are many in The King and I and the talented cast deliver all the magic and majesty of each of them. Beechey of course offers up the most beloved tunes of all, from an upbeat I Whistle a Happy Tune early on to the romantically optimistic Hello, Young Lovers and over to the real greats of this show: Getting to Know You and Shall we Dance (in which she is of course joined by Llana). While Beechey has a firm handle on those towering greats of musical theatre, Yeung transcends theatrical time and space with soaring renditions of My Lord and Master and We Kiss in a Shadow and Bonner delivers Something Wonderful with beautiful vocals and a sense of great gravity and wisdom. But of course The King and I does not simply deliver on the sentimental and buoyant numbers, it offers great comedy and dramatic zest in the ensemble numbers Western People Funny and the adorable March of Siamese Children too.
Best of all the magic in this production is the phenomenal sequence for The Ballet of The Small House if Uncle Thomas, based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and starring the fantastically expressive Ena Yamaguchi as Eliza. It’s in this sprawling, gorgeous section of the second act that the work of the creative team shines brightest and secures the production’s undoubted status as a work of art. Donald Holder’s lighting sensationalises the unfolding melodrama beautifully and choreography from Christopher Gattelli (a more energised take on the gorgeous original choreography of Jerome Robbins), which is superb throughout, offers thrillingly dramatic visuals and a sense of unrelenting pace to the proceedings. The ballet is without doubt the theatrical pinnacle of this gorgeous production.
Whether The King and I is new to you or a much loved favourite, this production is guaranteed to impress with its sweeping scale and celebratory approach to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s tale and the opulent aesthetics accompanying it so beautifully. It’s light entertainment in its purest and most beautiful form, transporting us to a wholesome style of musical theatre which sees very little stage time in our theatrical landscape. It is, quite simply, a thoroughly wonderful production offering a blissful few hours of escapism. Highly recommended.
The King and I plays Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House until November 9th 2019 and you can find tickets here. The production then continues to tour until May 2020 – information and tickets can be found here.