Bartlett Sher handles this politically tricky piece with care, respect and skill to deliver a wonderfully lush and beautifully staged revival of THE KING AND I that is a joy to watch
Following its multi-award winning run on Broadway and its record-breaking sold-out season at the London Palladium, American director Bartlett Sher brings his revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s THE KING AND I to Manchester’s Opera House this month for a two-week stint as part of a brand-new world tour.
Based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, THE KING AND I follows British schoolteacher Anna who is hired by the stubborn King Mongkut of Siam to teach his many children. Finding Siamese customs to be quite different from English ones, Anna soon finds herself in conflict with the King as she works to teach the royal family about the English language, customs and etiquette and rushes to prepare a party for a group of European diplomats who must change their opinions about the king.
Described as a “celebration of the lavish heritage of the very best in romantic musical theatre”, Director Sher certainly hasn’t held back in this lush revival of THE KING AND I. This is a huge, opulent production with Michael Yeargan’s gold infused set dominating the stage, a ship’s giant prow gliding towards the audience in the opening scene to truly set the grandeur of the piece. Catherine Zuber’s costume design is equally lush here, conjuring up a world of oriental opulence to make the stage sing with colour.
The cast is just as grand with a huge ensemble of over 50 taking to the stage in a multitude of parts. Jose Llana delivers a sharp, brilliantly funny and charismatic performance as troubled tyrant King Mongkut. This is a King who may wear a scowl like a badge of honour yet underneath there is a hint of vulnerability and mischief, as he learns to balance authority with humility.
Annalene Beechey radiates charm and intelligence as Anna, bringing a resilient edge to the role and a fresh sound to over-familiar numbers like GETTING TO KNOW YOU and SHALL WE DANCE? Whilst Llana and Beechey certainly have chemistry on stage, there is a sense here that Anna and the King aren’t romantically in love, but instead are two lonely people who find genuine solace in each other, giving a fresh edge to their climactic dance scene as they glide around the stage.
Elsewhere, Kamm Kunaree delivers a knockout performance of MY LORD AND MASTER as the piercingly vulnerable Tuptim, the girl sent to the King as a present from the King of Burma. Cezarah Bonner is equally excellent as Lady Thiang, the King’s senior wife, her glowing version of SOMETHING WONDERFUL standing out as a highlight.
Yet, for all its wonder, THE KING AND I isn’t without the odd misstep. Act two has a tendency to drag a little, mostly due Jerome Robbins’ original ballet THE SMALL HOUSE OF UNCLE THOMAS which runs for its full 16 minutes making this already long musical, quite a lot longer.
Those familiar with the musical will also know that THE KING AND I boasts a few uncomfortable moments thanks to its dubious racial politics. While Sher handles the collision of different cultures well here by reinstating some lines from a discarded draft to make the character’s political predicament more pronounced, this much-loved musical still feels a little difficult to hold up to modern standards.
That said, there is much to love here and you can’t fault Rodgers and Hammerstein’s fine musical score with WHISTLE A HAPPY TUNE, HELLO YOUNG LOVERS, GETTING TO KNOW YOU and SHALL WE DANCE all played with gusto by a full-scale orchestra led by Musical Director Stephen Ridley.
For the most part, Sher also handles this politically tricky piece with care, respect and skill to deliver a wonderfully lush and beautifully staged revival that is simply a joy to watch. In fact, you could almost say it is ‘SOMETHING WONDERFUL’.
THE KING AND I runs at the Opera House, Manchester until 11 May 2019
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.