The King and I – The Playhouse, Edinburgh

Music by Richard Rodgers

Book & Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Based upon Margaret Landon’s Anna And The King

Directed by Bartlett Sher

As the shimmers of lustrous gold part, a steamboat trundles into view. This behemoth set-piece, simple though effective, offers an immediate scale to The King and I. Charged as the new teacher to the children of the King of Siam, or at least those children in favour, Anna docks in a distant land, where customs are not the norm for her English ways. Then again, neither are her behaviours for the residents of the Kingdom. A foundation in the musical theatre pantheon, The King and I is a staple of the industry. Borrowing, perhaps too closely, from the 1956 film starring iconic actor Yul Brinner, Bartlett Sher’s The King and I revels in splendour.

So, let’s address the Elephant in the room, shall we? Hammerstein’s original lyrics and script work for The King and I haven’t aged well, though in truth its white saviour plot point, overarching a narrative riddled with stereotypes, negative imagery and cultural appropriation has never been acceptable. If you cannot move beyond these aspects of theatre, The King and I won’t be for you (though this is another discussion entirely). Nor is three-quarters of musical theatre pre-millennium. In their drive to pursue a story of an independent woman, balancing a level of dignitary acceptance, with self-respect against a patriarchal establishment, Hammerstein inadvertently stokes issues of cultural representation.

If you can put this to one side, The Lincoln Centre Theater Production of The King and I is an absolute spectacle of musical theatre, and a triumph of stage, artistry and talent. From the leads to ensemble, there is little, is anything, not to enjoy. Annalene Beechey, stood upon the deck of Michael Yeargan’s set design frames the production triumphantly, not only holding a candle but snatching it from Deborah Kerr, the synonymous performer of the role alongside Brinner in 1956. With the abundant charm of an English rose, a dash of Julie Andrews’ thorny grit, she’s captivating to watch. Vocally foreboding, the control of tone is impressive, nary a strained note or forced delivery in earshot. 

In a moderate attempt to zhuzh up the text, snippets of modernist efforts are brought to the characters of Anna and the King of Siam. Jose Llana strikes less intimidation as the titular King, but his royal presence is evident. There’s as much a cowering adoration for the man, as there is a presence as a father. A welcome addition, Llana is accessible, warming to his humour, and stitch inducing facial expression. Timing to perfection, his delivery ricochets off any of those who are unfortunate to receive the brunt of his wit – that is, of course, except Beechey’s Anna. Naturally harmonious, the pair have instant chemistry. Individually, they excel, as a unit, their vocal melodies synchronise, their movement pieces the gleaming jewel of the production.

As the building notes of household classic Shall We Dance? ripple through the theatre, there is movement, not solely on stage. Silhouettes, bobbing in idyllic enjoyment, swaying to the tune, demonstrate the sublime attractiveness of live theatre. The necessity of insightful costume creation becomes apparent. Catherine Zuber’s pieces, which thus far have ranged from exuberantly whimsical, to gloriously vibrant, are put to the test. A magnificent gown, resplendent to replicate Beechey’s presence, it captures the tone of the production. Glamorous, elegant, but sculpted in a way to have fun.

To praise Beechey and Llana’s movement wouldn’t be enough, the weight of the costume, merely adds respect to Beechey’s ability as she laces back and forth around the Palace, all the while Llana’s control maintains a momentum, synchronising with the orchestra. Rivalled only by The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ infusion of Eastern storytelling, it fits precisely into the production, just on the cusp of overstaying its welcome, veers into a perfect amount of time, instigating the climax. Complimenting European ballet style, with fluid movements of traditional Eastern dance, its creativity is as exquisite as it’s storytelling mechanics.

Cezarah Bonner and Kok-Hwa Lie, taking on secondary roles as the Prince’s mother and Siam’s Prime Minister push their characters into the primary narrative with how successful they grasp attention. Clear, powerful vocals, bring emotion to their roles, only eclipsed by the finale between Anna and the King. Kok-Haw Lie especially selling a harrowing hurt in how Anna has ‘broken’ the King.

Attempting to stand out against illustrious staging, Ethan Le Phong’s Lun Tha suffers. Washing out, his character is extremely minimal for what is a pivotal tertiary narrative, which brings about the climax with his secretive relationship with Burmese ‘gift’ to the king, Tuptim. Tuptim, performed by Paulina Yeung, gifts us with reciting Uncle Thomas’ reading. Her meeting with Lun Tha in secret, cast in the atmospheric royal sapphires of Donald Holders lighting feels held together on her end.

Your head should never be above the King’s, so luckily, the raised Playhouse stage offers plenty of wiggle room to allow for a standing ovation. A well deserved one, for a near-perfect production whose only notable flaws lies within the skeleton of the piece itself, a product of its era – the talent involved in the production are wonders in their field. You don’t have to travel far off the map to experience an entirely new world, or revisit a familiar one. The King and I promises grandeur, and it is triumphant in delivering this.

Runs at the Edinburgh Playhouse until October 26th, then continues touring: https://www.atgtickets.com/times/the-king-and-i/edinburgh-playhouse/2019-10-21

Photo Credit – Johan Persson

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