The King and I
Rodgers & Hammerstein
Lincoln Center Theatre
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
I could hum half the songs, but never had the opportunity to see a live performance of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I.
Now revived and touring the country, the drama of 1860s Bangkok has been brought back to life in Bartlett Sher’s production. Starting off at the London Palladium, this is a big show to be touring—a large cast with with lots of children and a decent orchestra in the pit is a rare treat away from the West End.
The King and I opens with a very English schoolteacher and her young son sailing into port. They are both clad head to toe in traditional Victorian garb, she in a giant hooped skirt and the little boy in a frock coat. This sets us up instantly for stark contrast to the world they are entering, with bare-chested prime ministers and shoeless Kings. Costume designer Catherine Zuber has the stage glittering in gold and rich fabric hues as we enter the palace and meet the King and his many wives.
Sher’s production has artfully nipped and tucked the show, and even updated the book a little to ensure moments of comedy. The first act is perfectly paced, but sadly, the play within a play in act 2 goes on a little too long, although it is a pleasure to watch the grace of the ballet dancers.
This show is focused on "A Puzzlement" that the King (Brian Rivera) must face: should he open his doors to the west and form allies, or barricade Siam from the outsiders. Rivera does well to bring out the confusion of the nearly divine despot as he enters a world he cannot yet understand. His newly hired English schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechey), represents the ‘civilised’ western world, and initially the pair find themselves at loggerheads.
The relationship between the schoolteacher and King is brilliantly portrayed. Beechey brings fire to this otherwise kind and empathetic teacher, coupled with a fantastic voice. Rivera has a twinkle in his eye as the King—keen to outdo the English lady whilst totally enamoured with her.
The King's many children bring the cute factor—when the children are presented to Anna, there is an audible "aww". The ensemble scenes generally steal the show, and "Getting to Know You" has everything: excellent choreography, adorable children and a tune half the audience wanted to sing along to.
The obvious difficulty of this show is it’s portrayal of Thai culture; this was written and composed with plenty of stereotyping and xenophobia, and watching an English person teach the uncivilised east about how to behave correctly is uncomfortable as a modern audience member. Yet at the same time, this is a show about revolution and change, with themes of feminism, slavery and polygamy, and as you watch, you find that both cultures learn and make fun of each other.
As the wives attempt to deal with the absurd Victorian undergarments, they sing, "To prove we are not barbarians, they make us dress like savages!" to much laughter. This conflict between Eastern and Western ideals is never resolved, despite much fondness between the King and Teacher.
This production is a visual feast, excellently played and performed and still moving 70 years on.
Reviewer: Louise Lewis