Reviewed by Jayne Knight
Before it even opened in Birmingham on Tuesday, The King and I had rave reviews. The Wall Street Journal stated, ’I doubt I’ll see a better production in my lifetime’. I was fortunate to see the great Yul Brynner in London many years ago and I have to say that this production equals that of 1979 London Palladium production.
Set in Bangkok in the 1860’s Anna Leonowens, a widow, has travelled with her son, Louis, to become tutor to the King of Siam’s children. The story is based in fact, with a little imagination. Taken from the 1944 novel by Margret Landon the show is a snapshot of life in an Eastern kingdom.
King Mongkut was a leader who, whilst being King had brought up his son, Prince Chulalongkorn to understand the western way of life and in his turn, he became Siam’s most progressive King with his western ideals and democracy.
Sitting in the auditorium the first thing that strikes you is the sheer opulence of the front cloth. The scenery designer have used almost 250 square metres of gold leaf to create a shimmering beauty, which during the overture is lit in a spectrum of colour.
From the overture to the finale, The King and I, written by Rogers and Hammerstein has music to set your toes tapping, humour and pathos.
Anna (Annalene Beechey) has all the warmth of a mother, expressing the need for courage in a foreign land, to her son Louis (Joseph Black), as they arrive on the shores of Siam. A woman who is not afraid to say what she thinks, as East meets West, sets the scene when she comes across Kralahome, (Kok-Hwa Lie) the King’s right hand man.
Annalene’s voice is both powerful and tender, according to her situation. Singing with the children she is a natural mother/teacher figure. Her perfect diction is in sharp contrast to the broken Siamese English. When she vents her anger towards the King in ‘Shall I tell you what I think of you?’ the lyrics play to both her emotions and her mastery of the English language.
Joseph Black, despite his tender years is no newcomer to life on stage. He has gained his experience in the West End and through that comes over as a confident young actor with a voice worthy of his role.
Kok-Hwa Lie shows his character as one of significance in the Royal Palace. His countenance gives little away as he smooths the way between a King, who sees women as lesser beings and the spirited Anna.
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) has all the authority of Eastern Royalty. He moves about the stage with a command that no-one would dare to contradict, (except Anna). His mannerisms and facial expressions are as much a part of his acting as his words. I have to say that the polka, in “Shall we Dance” is charged with an energy between the leading characters, that defines their feelings towards one another, yet the words remain unsaid. The choreography and stagecraft at this point combine to create the illusion that the pair are dancing in a much larger room, as the pillars are shifting across the stage, simultaneous to the dance.
In ‘The March of the Siamese Children’, we see each child being presented to Anna. Despite their royal beginnings, they depict a range of traits from cute and mischievous, through to studious and almost pompous. This is the first time that we encounter Prince Chulalongkorn (Aaron Teoh). A Prince who is trying to live up to his father’s ideals, he struggles to find his place. His character forms a friendship with Louis and the pair give an excellent reprise of “A Puzzlement”.
Lady Thiang (Cezarah Bonner) is the matriarch of the King’s wives. She has an authority that is not to be questioned, so when she realises that Tuptim (Paulina Yeung), a gift to the King, is in love she steps in. Her quiet supporting role is defined in her actions.
Paulina portrays as a frightened young girl, who blossoms with love. Singing in the palace garden as she steals moments with Lun Tha (Ethan Le Phong) the pair sing ‘We kiss in the shadow’ and in Act II, ‘I have dreamed’, in which both declare their love, knowing that they can never be seen together. Tuptim uses the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to facilitate her escape from the Palace. During the telling of this tale, the audience is given an outstanding display of ballet. Her character turns as her anger boils over; her eventual despair is palpable.
The choreography is largely that of traditional Siamese with fingers splayed and toes upturned; arms and legs form angular shapes that we recognise from the eastern world. A tradition that has been passed from one generation to the next in each production since 1951.
Costumes are sumptuous, comprised of over 2,500 metres of fabric. Attention to detail has not been spared with adornments of buttons and trim to authenticate the minutiae of style.
There will be a cast change on 17th December when Kok-Hwa Lie takes over the role of the King, which I am sure he will perform with excellence if tonight was any indication.
Not your usual Christmas performance, I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in musical theatre, or if you simply want to see a fantastic uplifting show.
Tickets cost from £17 (plus £3.65 transaction fee).
The King and I is at The Alexandra in Birmingham from 10 December 2019 to 4 January 2020, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/birmingham or call the box office on 0844 871 3011.
The Alexandra, Suffolk Queensway, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4DS