The Lincoln Center Theater Production of The King and I, directed by Scarlett Sher, is a sumptuous spectacle that oozes class from the moment the Overture strikes up under the direction of Malcolm Forbes- Peckham and the very second the exquisitely elaborate front cloth begins its kaleidoscopic accompaniment. Red silk adorned with 250 metres of gold leaf set the scene of opulence and I have never seen an audience agog and aghast at a front cloth before - Breathtaking!
Next, after a Kabuki cloth drop we are left stunned as a ship appears effortlessly on stage. Michael Yeargan, set designer and the whole working technical team really do merit praise indeed. Performing for the first time on the raked stage, at the Leeds Grand Theatre, must have presented a whole new set of challenges, but there was not a pause or flaw in sight.
The King and I is based on Anna Leonowens fascinating diary of her time teaching the children of the King of Siam in 1860's. It ethnographically charts the hidden kingdom's resonant emergence and struggle from tradition to modernity. This production uses this at the very heart of its message and the subtle love story plays second to the turmoil of both country and man. Poignantly noted was the song, A Puzzlement, (which Brynner frequently omitted from his performances) encapsulating this trauma perfectly. East and west, Male and female, we see a King who tries to be a good King and searches for answers to questions that indeterminable. The songs are familiar - Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know you and Shall We Dance, yet the lesser known songs find greater meaning. Western Funny People, points out the divisions between the cultures and the divisions in the kingdom as the raucous number highlights the absurdity of the Western underwear. Although a little lengthy, the ballet scene at the start of Act two; based on the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom's cabin and dealing with 1860's current issues of slavery; is a dazzling spectacle with choreography by Christopher Gattelli, derived from the legendary Jerome Robbins.
On a personal level, I was anxious to see if Yul Brynner's ghost could be exorcised from my memory. After 4,625 performances of the role, Brynner clung to the role rather like a King himself, afraid to relinquish his power. But, within minutes Jose Llana as the King of Siam laid all to rest with a wonderfully charismatic, humorous, tormented, vulnerable and authoritarian portrayal - Very different but with thunderous impact and anxious grit. The trouble tyrant, Llana is the perfect nemesis for the show stealing performance by Annalene Beechey as Anna Leonowens. For 3 hours, Beechy commands the stage with her soaring soprano voice, perfect diction and emotive connection. Her interaction with the children is sincere and infectious and her introspective moments with the King are beautifully realistic, handling the collision of culture with the required sensitivity. Her rendition of Hello, Young Lovers is mesmerising as we see her past alive once more in her eyes. What is essentially a two handed show is held firmly and stylishly by Llana and Beechy.
In a large supporting cast Paulina Yeung as the King's unhappy concubine and Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang (the King's head wife) deliver powerful performances, alongside Ethan Le Phong as Lun Tha and Philip Bulcock as the debonair Sir Edward Ramsay/Captain Orton.
This momentous 1950's Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, sensationally soared asking more questions than can be historically answered. A new and refreshing production of a classic R&H musical that hits the spot on many levels. Do not miss this production - a lavish, lush and thought provoking yet relevant time capsule on a grand scale.
Reviewer: Tracey Bell
Reviewed: 30th October 2019
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★