Last night The Bloke and I were invited to see The King and I at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham.
Starring West End actress Annalene Beechey in the role of Anna and Broadway actor Jose Llana as The King, the critically acclaimed Lincoln Center Theatre production of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical arrives direct from a record-breaking season at The London Palladium as part of its major UK tour. Directed by Bartlett Sher and featuring an instantly recognisable score with songs including Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance and Whistle a Happy Tune, the production features a company of over 50 performers and a full-scale orchestra.
Set in 1860’s Bangkok, The King and I tells the story of the rather unconventional and tempestuous relationship between King Mongkut of Siam (now known as Thailand) and Anna, a strong-willed British widowed schoolteacher who is employed by the King to tutor his many children, highlighting the battle between male and female, Western ideals and Eastern traditions.
The King and I has had a rather complicated and troubled past since its 1951 Broadway debut (and is still banned to this day in Thailand due to the negative depiction of the King), but this latest revival has been done in a sensitive and beautiful way with enormous lengths being taken to ensure that it is historically accurate.
Annalene Beechey was a delight as the headstrong and compassionate Anna. With a warm and passionate voice, she captured the very essence of the character – sweet, resilient and determined with a genuine belief in the King’s children and the country’s future.
Jose Llana as the conflicted King absolutely owned the stage. With a magnificent presence and charisma, he performed the role with authority and dignity, also providing most of the comical moments of the show with superb timing and facial expressions.
The supporting cast were equally as impressive, with Cezarah Bonner as the wise Lady Thiang (she was sporting a crutch throughout the performance and it was revealed later that she was wearing a leg brace), Kok-Hwa Lie as the stoney-faced and traditional Prime Minister Kralahome and Aaron Teoh as the heir to the throne, Prince Chulalongkorn. I loved the chemistry between Paulina Yeung and Ethan Le Pong, who play Tuptim and Lun Tha respectively, declaring their secret and forbidden love for each other in front of a backdrop of hundreds of hanging flowers. Yeung in particular had a sensational operatic voice, and one of the best female vocals I’ve heard on stage in recent times.
The highlight of the show is the presentation of Tuptim’s play – a Siamese interpretation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which most of the cast was on stage – which was beautifully executed in a 15 minute interlude. I’ve never warmed to the ‘play within a play’ device, but Paulina Yeung’s delivery, the costumes and Christopher Gatelli’s choreography (based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins) were wonderful.
The costumes – designed by Catherine Zuber – are lavish and intricate, with nearly two miles of fabric used to create the beautiful garments including the 40lb ballgown worn by Beechey (that she danced beautifully in with seeming ease). The sets (which includes a large boat for the opening scene) are spectacular and have been designed from photos taken of Siam during the 19th Century. The use of moving ornate columns to create a sense of space was cleverly done and the production includes 250 square metres of gold leaf and 22,000 handmade flowers that requires 8 trucks to move the production between theatres.
Winner of four Tony Awards, The King and I has been seen by one million people globally. It’s a lengthy production with a running time of almost three hours (including the interval), but it was easy to become completely immersed in the beauty and opulence of the show.
Note: Jose Llana is scheduled to appear from Tuesday 10th – Saturday 14th December. Kok-Wah Lie will be playing the role of The King for the remaining dates (and judging from his performance in last night’s show he is undoubtedly going to be superb).
Disclaimer: The Bloke and I were given complimentary tickets to the show, but were under no obligation to provide a positive review.