The King and I is without doubt one of the great musicals with a sensational score but has been in recent years a problematic piece as the original play and movie had something of a white saviour narrative to them.
This intelligent and sumptuous revival directed by Bartlett Sher is now much more about the repercussions of culture clashes as widowed British teacher Anna and her son travel to Siam to teach the many children of an autocratic king. He is keen to embrace western values to protect his country from the imperialist vultures circling around his small kingdom as civil war rages in America.
The King gambles that western values will make him stronger, but he soon discovers through smart and feisty Anna that what he hopes to import into a centuries old Siamese culture brings unexpected challenges. The witty, and radical for its time, Western People Funny is wonderfully subversive as the King’s many wives struggle with the complicated hooped dresses Victorian women in Europe wore. There’s a love story thrown in where typical of Victorian dramas it’s full of bizarre social conventions as Anna and the King repress emotions until the bittersweet end much like The Remains of The Day.
This is a West End standard production with a big cast and Michael Yeargan’s extravagant set, but what really makes it worth bringing back it is the beautiful music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s book that despite its historic shortcoming offers a damning indictment of slavery in a wonderfully choreographed The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Ballet) that dominates the second act. It’s becoming increasingly rare to see a big orchestra in the pit and under Christopher Munday the musicians explore all the richness on their sheet music.
All great musicals need at least one showstopper in each half, but Rodgers and Hammerstein sail past that low bar with I Whistle a Happy Tune, A Puzzlement, a joyous version of Getting To Know You, Something Wonderful and a glorious Shall We Dance, as Anna and the King finally express their feelings as they sweep round this huge stage.
This core needs top class performers and Annalene Beechey brings real steel to Anna who is this version is a proto feminist stranding her ground for equality, and not afraid to speak truth to power. You will not hear a better vocal performance in this theatre all year, and you can’t help but think of Julie Andrews as she expresses her frustrations during Shall I Tell What I Think Of You.
Darren Lee is not her match vocally, but he is a fine actor taking on a tricky role subtly peeling back the layers to reveal a sensitive monarch hiding his fear under bombast, and more than a dollop of casual misogyny that Anna constantly challenges. A large and uniformly talented ensemble keeps the energy up with Cezarah Bonner bringing a quiet dignity to number one wife Lady Thang, and Kok- Hwa Lie has a real presence as loyal prime minister Kralahome.
In a cast full of exceptional vocalists Marienella Phillips excels as Tuptim, and her work with Dean John-Wilson as her star-crossed lover makes the most of Rodgers’ ear for a melody, especially in their duet, We Kiss in A Shadow. Special mention to the junior ensemble who cope admirably with some challenging choreography and sing well.
This revival doesn’t address all the flaws of a piece written in the fifties, and there are still too many cultural stereotypes, but it does more than enough to allow a new audience to luxuriate in some of the greatest show tunes ever written.
The King and I is at Leeds Grand until Saturday November 4th. To book 0113 2430808 or www.leedheritagetheatres.com
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 31st October 2023
North West End UK Rating: