I’ve always been a fan of a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. I’m crazy about Carousel. Obsessed by Oklahoma. Smitten with The Sound of Music. But I’ve never really been truly keen on The King & I. It’s not a musical I’ve sat and watched over and over again, nor one I could recite the script of. But after a week of quarantine after the lurgy, Mr Fletche (*) and I headed to the Alexandra Theatre for the Press and Gala Night of this lavish production directed by Tony Award winner Bartlett Sher.
(* My guest for the night should have been Ma Lee, but she had other “social commitments”. If the team at the Alex could coordinate future press nights with her diary she would be extremely grateful).
Fresh from an acclaimed London run, The King & I has embarked on a national tour. Loosely based on a true story, a widowed schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechey), is summoned to 1860’s Bangkok to tutor the numerous children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). The King is a stubborn and complex man, torn between keeping his country’s cultural identity, maintaining independence and gaining respect from the outside world. His early relationship with Anna is fractious and frustrating until they slowly build mutual respect and affection.
The story tackles some surprisingly weighty issues – gender conflict, multiculturalism, slavery, inequality. Anna’s British values immediately clash with the traditional values of the King – particularly regarding his treatment of women. Anna is very forward-thinking; the King – not so much. But the show’s main focus is to entertain so whilst the King may be barbaric, he is lovable with it, and it’s no surprise to anyone when a spark of friendship begins to ignite.
There are a backdrop of other stories, including the inner conflict of the polyamorous King’s head wife Lady Thiang (Cezarah Bonner), and a tragic love affair between the enslaved Tuptim (Paulina Yeung) and Lun Tha (Ethan Le Phong). It is Tuptim’s “play-within-a-play” in the second act which is a particular highlight of the evening, with it’s stunning stagecraft, intricate choreography by Christoper Gattelli and clever handling of the technical challenges of the scene.
There is no doubt that this production of The King & I is a visual spectacle. It has transferred to tour with its original staging – no mean feat – and it feels like Broadway itself has arrived in Birmingham. The spectacular opening sequence has Anna and her young son Louis arriving in the Far East on a steamboat that glides across the stage in swirling mist against a scarlet red sunset.
The original Anna Leonowens, played by Deborah Kerr, was famously dubbed by Marnie Nixon in the 1956 movie, but there is no doubt that this version is all Annalene Beechey. She sings pure and clear, and acts with emotion, verve and passion. Beechey switches between kindly school ma’am and elegant lady easily, and hats off to her managing to dance beautifully in that voluminous crinoline. She is truly the star of the show.
However she is not alone in turning in a superb performance. From the Broadway production itself, Jose Llana expertly portrays the arrogant and bombastic King as he flounders between preserving tradition and embracing other cultural norms. He brings humour to the role, and a wide range of facial expressions, echoing those of Yul Brynner in the original film. There is a palpable chemistry between the two performers and it is clear that, having played the roles before in the West End and on Broadway, they know their characters inside out.
Paulina Yeung also deserves an honourable mention as she delivers a hauntingly beautiful My Lord and Master which brought goosebumps. Yeung and Le Phong also share the lovely but painful duet We Kiss in A Shadow.
Of course, no production of The King & I is complete without a horde of charming child performers, who behave impeccably throughout. The March of the Siamese Children is simply heart-warming as Anna meets her royal charges for the first time. The orchestra are excellent, marvellously led by Musical Director Malcolm Forbes-Peckham. This really is Richard Rodger’s at his absolute best as a composer, and the score is much more diverse than I remembered. Getting to Know You is a familiar favourite, but I also particularly enjoy Shall I Tell You What I Think of You? and Something Wonderful.
Shimmering fabric, gold leaf and handmade flower garlands make for a luxurious backdrop. The set design by Michael Yeargan is probably the most impressive I’ve ever seen on the stage at the Alexandra, really capturing the magnificence of the Siamese Palace. I’m particularly a fan of the flying pillars. The costumes are beautifully designed by Catherine Zuber, stylish and appropriate for each period
This production has won multiple awards and it’s easy to see why. The show’s running time is almost three hours in total, yet it didn’t feel that way whilst watching.
Visually stunning and packed with poignant moments, The King & I is a feast for the eyes. Extravagantly staged, impeccable stagecraft, this has put this Rodgers & Hammerstein show high on my list of favourites.
The King & I continues in Birmingham throughout the festive season, until Saturday 4th January 2020. To book, visit the Alexandra Theatre website or call 0844 871 3011. The UK tour continues until May 2020; for a full tour schedule and to book tickets, visit the official King & I website: https://kingandimusical.co.uk/uk-tour-dates/