THIS award-winning production of the classic ‘The King and I’ is one of those shows that just ticks all the boxes.
From the minute the orchestra strikes up the overture and the billowing, gold curtain that has replaced the traditional house tabs becomes a dancing light show, the hairs start to rise on the back of your neck.
The curtain lifts to reveal a paddle steamer, the Chow Phya that has just arrived into the port of Bangkok. We are back in the 1860s and on deck and gazing into the strange cacophony of teeming human life on the dockside, is schoolteacher Anna Leonowens. She is dressed in a huge, hooped skirt of the period and arrives to take up a post as tutor to the children of the King of Siam.
Alongside her – and naturally nervous at the alien scene unfolding before them – is her young son Louis. Anna boosts his courage as she teaches him to put on a brave face by singing (and whistling of course) ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’.
From here Anna enters a world of both splendor and inequality – where the King is supreme in all things, slavery is normality and savagery and beauty make discordant bedfellows. ‘East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet’ as the saying goes – but our heroine puts up a pretty good fight at bringing her own brand of slightly jingoistic British values to the Royal household of Siam, becoming much loved by all including eventually the King himself.
The storyline, which is actually based on true events detailed in the real Anna Leonowens diary, has enthralled many generations. When you think of the King, you automatically think of Yul Brynner as the definitive bald headed monarch in the movie – amazingly he actually played it over 4,000 times on stage too. In this production we were privileged to see the magnificent Jose Llana who starred in the Tony award-winning Lincoln Center, Broadway production. His every movement, gesture and utterance was indeed a master class.
Annalene Beechey matches Llana blow for blow and shows that Anna too has many layers as she wears petticoats. Beechey is vocally and physically perfect in every way.
If this were a heavyweight-boxing contest it would go the full 15 rounds and end in a draw with both hands held high in triumph.
The entire company is excellent but I’d like to give a special shout out to Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thaing as the King’s number one wife and wise whisperer of wisdom – Aaron Teoh as Prince Chulalongkorn who readies himself to take the throne and lead it into a more open and less misogynistic future and to Paulina Yeung as Tuptim, who has the voice of a songbird as the bride gift from the neighbouring King of Burma.
The choreography by Christopher Gattelli is ‘wowsome’; the wardrobe designed by Catherine Zuber gorgeous in every detail – the ever-moving set from Michael Yeargan awesome, the lighting design by Donald Holder – bold and sensitive whilst the orchestra under the baton of Malcolm Forbes-Peckham is full and joyous.
In act two there is a play within a play, or rather a ballet within a play where the dancing is taken to another level of excellence as the wives and children put on ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ (their version of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’) for visiting Western dignitaries at a state banquet. This combines traditional Thai with modern dance and is quite breath taking.
Of course the number we are all anticipating is ‘Shall we Dance’ and when it eventually comes, it is so worth the wait – powerful and oozing sumptuous sexual energy.
Overall, I can’t find enough superlatives to endorse this five star production – tears and laughs came in seemingly endless waves from an audience entranced by a night of culture, history and magic that truly delivers its eastern promises – in a word it’s simply ‘delightful.’
The show runs at the Alexandra Theatre until January 4.
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Review by Euan Rose.