The Lincoln Center Theater production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I” is at the Playhouse Theatre Edinburgh for 10 days (Thursday 17th to Saturday 26th October) and judging from the audience at this show tonight, this musical is as popular as it has ever been with a wide range of people of all ages filling the theatre tonight.
In the elite world of classic musicals by masters of their crafts like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, “The King and I” has, since its first stage production in 1951 starring Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the title roles of Anna and The King, been a huge success with audiences and the story and songs taken into their hearts as few musicals have ever done. Over the years since “The King and I” has become a family favourite as new generations have discovered its charms, and a big part of this enduring success has to go to the 1956 film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in the title roles.
There have been more than a few stage productions of this show over the years, but if you are staging a revival of not only a classic, but one so loved by audiences world-wide then you have not only a huge task ahead of you, but a huge responsibility to stay true to this show and try and capture once again what makes this show so special to people. This production, directed by Bartlett Sher has done exactly everything that generations of fans of “The King and I” would expect, and maybe more.
Wisely, the visual direction of this production has stayed very close to the original film version (there are some scenes that never made it from stage to film here too) and everyone involved here in the visual design – set (Michael Yeargan), costumes (Catherine Zuber), Lighting (Donald Holder) has created a spectacle on stage full of the colours and opulence that you would expect the Royal Court of Siam in the early 1860s to have. This production is lavish at every level, but just as importantly, huge attention to detail has been given at every step of the way. This is not so much a “stage-show” as a “stage spectacle” and the opening scene with Anna arriving in Siam sets the standard for everything that is to follow.
This story is, as many people will know, based on the book “Anna and The King of Siam”, the true story of how an English governess took up a position to teach at the Royal Court as part of The King of Siam’s attempts to modernise his country, and in this production our two leading stars Annalene Beechey as Anna Leonowens and Jose Lllana as the King of Siam, capture the dynamics of this relationship perfectly. With an almost uncanny ability to re-capture the very essence of the famous film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, Annalene Beechey and Jose Llana give a faultless musical and dramatic performance here that brings their characters and this story to glorious life on stage.
There are so many classic songs from this musical, “Hello, Young Lovers”, and “A Puzzlement” to name only two, and Annalene and Jose absolutely get them spot on, and their “Shall We Dance” duet has to go down in this history books as a piece of classic theatre.
As The King, Jose Llana is perfectly cast for this role in every little mannerism that he so carefully gives us, and equally perfect in her role is Annalene Beechey whose voice has a purity and clarity to it that is rare to hear in any production these days. Annalene also has a voice that in so many ways reminds me of that of Marni Nixon who “voiced over” all the songs for Deborah Kerr in the 1956 film. Here, both Jose Llana and Annalene Beechey are setting the standard for anyone coming after them in these roles and I think they will define Anna and The King for a whole new generation of theatre goers.
To be part of a show of this quality, everyone in it has to be of at a huge level of talent, and there are no weak performances here. There is, as always, a rotating cast for the children in any show like this, but every one of them gave a high standard of performance tonight.
This show perhaps works so well because it also has strong secondary characters with their own story lines and often songs, and Cezarah Bonner (Lady Thiang), Pauline Yeung (Tuptim), Ethan Le Phong (Lun Tha) and Kok-Hwa Lie (Kralahome) all play their roles wonderfully here.
I don’t know if such a production as “The Perfect Show” actually exists, but this production of “The King and I” certainly comes as close to that definition as any production I have ever seen, and giving it only five stars seems a little mean to be honest as it is so far past the quality of many other shows I have given a similar rating to in the past . We only have five stars here to work with though, no extra ones hidden away for emergencies, so FIVE STARS and if we could give them, more.
Review by Tom King