Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is considered to be one of the classics of the American Musical, a cornerstone of the musical canon. First produced on Broadway in 1951, it was actually written as a star-vehicle for the British comic actress Gertrude Lawrence (as Anna Leonowens) but it was a theatrical newcomer, Yul Brynner, cast as the King of Siam, who was rocketed into superstardom. The shadow of Yul Brynner, who played the role for 4,625 performances, has been thrown over every revival of the show ever since. So with this new production touring the country the question has to be: can The King and I survive without its legendary King?
Bart Sher’s reworking of The King and I, which started on Broadway in 2015 before making its way to London’s West End two years ago, is a startlingly fresh take on this classic show. A talented cast of actors of Asian background play the people of Siam – the royal wives and children, the king’s ministers, and slaves – in Sher’s decision to make the show more culturally sensitive and free it from the taint of what has been called ‘playing in yellow-face’ (Caucasian actors performing as Asians) which has blighted all previous productions of the musical. The result is refreshing, honest, and sophisticated: a King and I for today. The libretto’s central theme – a call for tolerance and understanding between opposing cultures – becomes relevant and hard-hitting. When, at the start of Act II, the King’s wives complain that ‘Western people [are] funny’, the jaunty little song quickly becomes a protest number – ‘don’t dare judge us by your crazy western standards!’
And what of the King himself? Siam’s tortured, but warm-hearted, ruler is played with genuine charisma in an upbeat comic performance by Jose Llana (above); his infectious energy throughout the show makes the king’s final, swift. decay all the more poignant. Llana’s style is as far from Yul Brynner’s as can be imagined – and it works brilliantly. As Mrs Anna, the Welsh-born school-ma’am, Maria Coyne is delightful, playing off Llana’s comic turn with an equal sparkle. There is a melancholy to her too and her rendition of ‘Hello Young Lovers’, one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest, saddest, tunes, is simply beautiful. But it is Cezarah Bonner’s Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife, who draws every eye. Diminutive in size and big of voice, this Lady Thiang is an imperial powerhouse, a warhorse of a woman with a heart of gold. Cezarah’s rendition of the love ballad ‘Something Wonderful’ is the highlight of the show.
Played against a sparse set (beautifully lit by Donald Holder), Catherine Zeuber’s costumes dazzle: Mrs Anna’s lilac silk ball gown should have its own credit in the programme – it is so iconic. Well supported by a cast of committed and versatile performers, the story is told with clarity and pace. Richard Rogers’ lush score is given a full-bodied interpretation under the baton of Malcolm Forbes-Peckham – it is glorious to hear in all its richness (the percussionist, Murdoch MacDonald must be rushed off his feet).
The King and I deserves its place in the Broadway Hall of Fame and this extraordinary production will ensure that its legacy lives on and flourishes in the future. Go see it.
Until January 18