Touring – reviewed at Edinburgh Playhouse
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
Shall we dance? You’ll certainly be singing the praises of this Broadway production of The King and I as it lights up the Playhouse stage.
While the historical accuracy of the story of 19th century British governess Anna Leonowens’ influence on King of Siam Mongkut is arguable, the quality of this production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical is there for all to see.
The sumptuousness of the production begins even before curtain up, as musical director Malcolm Forbes-Peckham’s orchestra gives us the scene-setting overture, Rodgers’ melodies conjuring a vision of the Far East.
When the gilded drapes lift, our gaze lands upon glorious court dancers, clad in shining armour and moving in near-mystical manner. And then we meet Anna and son Louis, arriving in Siam from Singapore on a prop boat so impressive it brings its own spontaneous applause.
As Anna, Annalene Beechey certainly looks the part in her massive crinolined skirt, and when she sings opening number ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ it’s clear she owns this role. Her trilling, thrilling soprano has a warmth that lets us know we’re going to enjoy spending time with Anna.
As the widow settles into life at the royal palace, teaching around a dozen of the king’s 67 children, Anna and the king rub one another up the wrong way. She is outraged that he’s not provided the agreed house away from the palace; he is incredulous that a woman would dare stand up to him – but little by little mutual respect comes, followed by friendship and perhaps even love.
A depiction of out and out romance wasn’t an option for lyricist and book writer Hammerstein in the fifties, so the true love element comes in the forms of Tuptim, a ‘present’ to the king from his Burmese counterpart, and Lun Tha, the man she truly loves. Anna secretly supports their chaste liaisons (‘Hello Young Lovers’) while Tuptim channels her feelings into a rewrite of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with the story of slave Eliza’s struggle to escape evil Simon Legree expressed as a Siamese folk tale.
The sequence is a highlight of a show that’s never less than brilliant, with Tuptim narrating her tale to king and court as dancers describe characters and action, with gorgeous costumes and masks allied to clever props. The music is wonderful, so dramatically evocative of Eastern mood that its influence can be heard in the decades-later hit Miss Saigon. But it’s the movement that truly spellbinds, with Christopher Gattelli’s choreography – taking its lead from the original moves of Jerome Robbins – hypnotic throughout.
Tear your eyes away from the ballet and you notice the stillness of the watching king – Jose Llana’s Mongkut is all stillness, but for the rest of the show he’s a force of nature; bombastic, scary, authoritative but also funny, tender and always fiercely intelligent. It’s his character that’s at the heart of the story – enough of a moderniser to engage a ‘man of science’ in Anna, but so tied to traditions that he’s inclined to visit terrible punishment on runaway Tuptim when she’s dragged back to the palace.
Annalene Beechey and young company. Pic: Johan Persson
Anna’s is the challenging presence that’s been lacking in the king’s life, but while he welcomes her advice – his pride never allows him to describe it as such – he can’t deal with the way she feels about his harsh judgments.
Beechey and Llana are utterly charming together, nailing the many moments of comedy and equally selling the drama, circling one another like curious beasts until they finally come together in Shall We Dance? The honey-toned Llana – whose King & I journey began years ago when he played Lun Tha in New York – bestrides the stage with eye-catching imperiousness, while Beechey is strength in grace personified.
There’s also a wonderful turn from Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thian, the wise mother of the king’s heir, Chulalongkorn (a hugely impressive Aaron Teoh), while Paulina Yeung and Ethan Le Phong sizzle as forbidden lovers Tuptim and Lan Tha. And the ballet cast, from Ena Yamaguchi as Eliza to the lowliest of Legree’s bloodhounds, are magical.
Players and musicians give memorable interpretations of the Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, whether it’s a standard like A Puzzlement or something less well-known, such as Western People Funny. The March of the Royal Children is especially delightful, with the characters of the king’s kids sketched in more clearly than in many productions. We Kiss in a Shadow is heartbreaking and Shall I Tell You What I Think of You hilarious. There isn’t a bad set-piece in director Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center Theater production.
Annalene Beechey and Jose Llana. Pic: Johan Persson
It’s a surprisingly pacy show for one coming in at just under three hours, with both acts zipping along nicely. And it’s so very good to look at and listen to, thanks to the likes of designers Michael Yeargan (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting) and Scott Lehrer (sound). A shout-out, too, must go to children’s casting director Debbie O’Brien for rounding up the talented bunch of moppets making up the royal classroom.
The collective charisma of the cast in a stunning production earns the standing ovation that came as bows – not kowtows – are taken. This production of The King and I is one that deserves to be remembered for years to come.
Running time 2 hours 55 minutes including interval
Playhouse 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA.
Wednesday 16 – Saturday 26 October 2019
Evenings Mon – Sat: 7.30pm; Matinees Weds 23, Thurs & Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book now.
The King And I on tour:
16 – 26 Oct 2019
0844 871 3014
29 Oct – 9 Nov 2019
0844 848 2700
10 Dec 2019 – 4 Jan 2019
The New Alexandra Theatre
0844 871 3011
8 – 18 Jan 2020
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
28 Jan – 8 Feb 2020
0844 871 7648
11 – 22 Feb 2020
01482 300 300
25 Feb – 7 March 2020
Milton Keynes Theatre
10 – 21 March 2020
08448 713 017
24 March – 4 April 2020
0844 871 3012
7 – 18 April 2020
0844 871 7645
21 April – 2 May 2020
The Mayflower Theatre
Jose Llana. Pic: Matthew Murphy