Anna thoroughly enjoys spending time with the Royal Siamese children. All pictures by Johan Persson
Review: The King and I is a lavish musical masterpiece from a bygone era
by Alan Wooding
Hailed as one of the greatest musicals ever written and having first appeared on Broadway back in 1951, the spectacular updated touring version of Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein II’s magnificent masterpiece The King and I arrived in Milton Keynes this week to rapturous applause.
From the moment the orchestra strikes up that fabulous overture you known something special is in store and this wonderful almost three hour show – which comes straight from the golden age of musicals – doesn't disappoint.
The King and I has been revived several times down the years following the huge success of the 1956 multiple Oscar Award-winning film of the same name which starred Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr.
However this latest touring production – courtesy of the Lincoln Center Theater – follows a hugely successful sell-out run at the London Palladium and today Margaret Landon's original book Anna and the King of Siam is still very much the basis of the story.
Ironically it's barely two weeks since BBC2 and Michael Portillo featured the story of British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her arrival in Thailand (formerly Siam) on his popular Great Asian Railway Journeys programme.
Portillo explained that back in 1862, King Mongkut Rama IV of Siam had hired Anna to become governess and English tutor to the Royal children and his many wives to help them learn of the world outside of their own restricted country.
Along with her young son Louis, widow Anna left her home in Singapore and travelled to Bangkok where she certainly ruffled a few feathers with her no-nonsense Mary Poppins-like manner after taking up her new teaching role.
The King and I features a very strong cast including the superb Annalene Beechey playing Anna and the equally brilliant Darren Lee as the King, while director Bartlett Sher's interpretation of Rodgers' and Hammerstein’s Tony Award-winning classic results in a truly lavish, colourful and triumphant revival.
Anna continually clashes with the stubborn Siamese monarch – especially over a 'promised' house – but she quickly begins to bond with his children and while she understand the many Siamese traditions, their relationship gradually begins to blossom into a romance.
The King is forced to rely on sweet-natured Anna – especially as British colonialisation became a possibility! – and she helps him prove he's not the 'barbarian' he assumes others think he really is and despite their unconventional and tempestuous relationship, she finally wins his heart.
Along the way we are treated to some of the most memorable show songs ever written: I Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting To Know You, Hello Young Lovers and the fabulous Shall We Dance which see the pair dance the polka around the stage in a flamboyant manner with Anna wearing a magnificent huge hooped dress. In fact the dress is so large that Annalene changes in the wings as it's too big to get out of her dressing room door!
Annalene Beechey is truly wonderful as the strong-minded Anna. I loved her clipped British accent and easy manner as she interacts with the Royal children. She has a truly beautiful singing voice and commands the stage superbly in what is a very demanding role.
And Darren Lee's performance is equal to that of Annalene's as he pompously struts around the stage in a regal manner, often comically uttering "ecetera, ecetera, ecetera" or "what, what, what" in a posh English accent.
Despite his mischievous sense of humour, he also shows total disdain to the women in his life until he finally softens thanks to Anna's influence. However he finally realises that being a stubborn and uncooperative ruler isn't the way to go if he wants his beloved Siam to become a modern nation.
With a huge cast of more than 50 actors and dancers, Jessica Gomes-NG plays the young 'gift slave' from the King of Burma, the beautiful Tuptim, while Ethan Le Phong is her tragic young lover Lin Tha. Both are superb as was their We Kiss In The Shadows number. Cezarah Bonner played the King's number one wife Lady Thiang (she sings Something Wonderful) while Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Aaron Teoh) displayed exactly the same aloof characteristics as his father... including his "ecetera, ecetera, ecetera" phrases!
Full marks also to Theo Hanness as Anna's young son Louis Leonowens – the role alternating between Theo, Joseph Black, Oscar Riley and Alfie Turnbull – while the unforgettable March of the Siamese Children introduces the audience to the King's numerous offspring as he looks proudly on.
There is a beautifully choreographed ballet sequence based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin which is about slavery in the USA – its Siamese version is 'The Small House of Uncle Tom' – after which Tuptim is arrested and brought back to the Royal court in disgrace by the King's Siamese Secret Guards after she tries to escape with her lover. All the dance sequences are cleverly put together and the costumes truly sensational.
In someways the story of Anna and the King is a tale of East versus West while there's certainly a battle of wills between two very headstrong people.
The King and I is certainly one of the most lavish touring productions I have ever witnessed. It's a visually breathtaking show from the opening scene when Anna and Louis arrive in Bangkok from Singapore aboard Captain Orton's (Philip Bulcock) stage-filling paddle steamer.
Meanwhile Michael Yeargan's exciting and lavish set design and Catherine Zubar's fabulous costumes are truly sensational as is the magnificent 14-piece orchestra under musical direction of conductor Malcolm Forbes-Peckham.
The King and I plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 7 March at 7.30pm nightly while there are a total of six matinees (Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) with tickets available from the Box Office, by calling 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.com/MiltonKeynes (booking fees apply).