THE KING & I

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _4th MAR.

March 1, 2023

images © Johan Persson.

No, not taken from the recent diaries of Ursula von der Leyen, but rather, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic romantique. Obviously.

Current affairs cheekiness aside, there’s actually a degree of synergy, dipping into this appraisal of the current touring production of The King & I by having a nosy at socio-political goings-on. As chunks of the UK prattle on – almost entirely inanely, it must be added – about the perceived ‘appropriateness’ of our own monarch wading into the arena politica, so too do we have here a theatrical production that seems to ponder similar considerations of itself.

It’s something of the white elephant in the room, and indeed one that similarly reared its head when visiting Chichester Festival Theatre’s recent revival of South Pacific. Many of the ‘R&H’ catalogue are, as anyone going in will doubtless be cognisant of, shows of their time. And yet, for all of the bountiful nostalgia, timeless tunes and sumptuous production values they may bring to the auditorium, there’s no getting around some of those conspicuous varicose veins running through the course of much of their narrative DNA.

First, let’s get the immediate out of the way. This current UK tour – itself just one of various international off-shoots of Bartlett Sher’s celebrated Lincoln Centre Theatre Production – is utterly sumptuous to take in and enjoy. This is musical theatre staging writ-large, painted onto the stage with craft and spectacle to spare. Michael Yearn and Mikiko Suzuki Macadams‘ vertiginous, majestic staging sacrifices nothing for being on the road. Donald Holder and Rob Casey splash fractured shadows across the rear of stage and bathe the show in azure. The result is a show that feels perpetually caught just a few moments before midnight, imbuing a dreamy, ethereal loveliness to it all.

“…a show that feels perpetually caught just a few moments before midnight, imbuing a dreamy, ethereal loveliness to it all.”

It helps that the show boasts an equally dreamy cast, too. A sizeable ensemble bring Christopher Gattelli and Greg Zane’s delightful, idiosyncratic choreography to life effortlessly yet vivaciously. See, for instance, this King’s show-within-a-show during Act II, here a bewitching, balletic dance kept afloat on the magnetic presence of a superb Rachel Wang-Hei Lau.

Speaking of magnetic, Cezarah Bonner defines supporting excellence as the matronly Lady Thiang, delivering some of the strongest and most impassioned vocals of the evening as part a beautifully assured performance. The West End’s OG Aladdin, Dean John-Wilson, inherits the slightly thankless role of lovestruck Lun Tha, but makes the most out of an underserved part, including beautiful iterations of romantic duets ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’ and ‘I Have Dreamed’. He was excellently met, in the performance reviewed, by an impressively earnest and affecting Amelia Kinu Muus, understudying for Lun’s romantic counterpart, the King’s latest ‘prize’, Tuptim.

Tiptoeing closer to the throne, Caleb Lagayan – who recently impressed on a run of understudied Marius performances in the most recent UK tour of Les Misérables – continues to cement himself as a stage performer to watch, and a talent made for the stage. His impassioned, full-throated Prince Chulalongkorn is a potent mix of initial regal pomposity, arrogance and frustration, with hints of boyish curiosity that all slowly evolve into something, and indeed someone, more considered, rounded and profound. Veteran actor-director-choreographer Darren Lee brings every ounce of his ‘triple threat’ credentials to bear on a supremely characterful and entertaining take on the titular monarch. Lee may not have the most classically jaw-dropping of voices, but his humorous, animated take on the King of Siam (warts and all) goes a long way in making what could easily be a fairly off-putting character actually rather disarmingly charming and possible to root for.

Perhaps the heartiest of praise must go, though, to alternate Anna, Maria Coyne. Coyne, herself a stage star of extensive background and experience, stepped in for ‘indisposed’ poster girl, Helen George, for the performance reviewed, and if there were any initial audience grumblings or misgivings at not getting to see the Call the Midwife star in the lead role, Coyne silenced them almost immediately. An assured, poised and notably never overplayed turn, it was a wonderful opportunity to take this trip to Siam in the steadying, confident hands of a superb, experienced performer who delivered a sublime, winning ‘Miss Anna’ in the process. Brava.

“There’s a definite sense that this is a King and I moulded and refined to be more intently aware of some of its own potentially problematic wrinkles.”

With all that (very deserved) praise having been said, there’s just no getting past that darned elephant. The core story of The King & I follows the tale of young British teacher, Anna (Maria Coyne, as mentioned, in the performance reviewed) travelling to Siam, employed to tutor the myriad children and offspring of its otherwise nameless King (Lee). Almost inevitably for the era, it charmingly bounces along in conventional Rodgers & Hammerstein fashion, as the two opposing figures of teacher and leader find themselves butting heads and, eventually, hearts.

Credit has to go to the talent involved in crafting both the Lincoln Centre Theatre incarnation, and doubtless right through to the resident creatives for this tour, too, for some of the mature narrative juggling and reworking done here. There’s a definite sense that this is a King and I moulded and refined to be more intently aware of some of its own potentially problematic wrinkles. Particularly, say, in its handling of polygamy and the mistreatment of women. Heck, even Hammerstein’s original book offered some acknowledgements of the sort.

Let’s not even get started on the overtones of imperialism and colonialism. ‘Western People Funny’, ‘n all.

There’s also something to be said in how the production is willing to slightly – at times a little incongruently – on its axis, particularly towards the end, to focus more on the importance of change, a willingness to modernise, and redress those aforementioned issues around the mistreatment and belittlement of others (particularly women).

And yet, in being an admirably more morally, ethically and socially conscious riff on a story so familiar to many, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that here is a King and I that is perhaps a little reluctant – embarrassed, even – to get too cosy with the romantic framework upon which much of it hangs. Whilst never as giddy or overt as, say, Carousel’s Billy and Julie (though that, too, offers its own share of problems), past iterations of King have nonetheless at least tiptoed beyond what sometimes registers here as little more than a very earnest friendship.

Worst (best?) of all, is that it’s a completely understandable approach, too; in 2023, it’s difficult to justify getting too doe-eyed over a learned, independent woman falling for a misogynistic, autocratic, polygamist monarch – eventual growth or not.

One can already sense the brittle ping of incensed readers switching off, theatre traditionalists screaming ‘woke’ (or words thereabouts), whilst others ready their nostalgia-coated pitchforks for the sheer audacity of questioning what is, undoubtedly, a classic. In truth though, what I called, in my South Pacific review, the game of ‘cultural hot potato’ that many producers and theatre makers face in adapting some of these old classics, actually has the bearings of a fascinating discussion and debate. We see it echo out beyond theatre, too, such as the recent furore over amendments being made to seminal literature offerings by Dahl, Fleming and others.

“…the game of ‘cultural hot potato’ that many producers and theatre makers face in adapting some of these old classics, actually has the bearings of a fascinating discussion and debate.”

“Make believe you’re brave,” Coyne’s Anna beautifully sang at the outset of a lavish, decadent evening of theatre, “and the trick will take you far.”

Perhaps going forward, the real ‘trick’ is going to be in seeing how long the nostalgia, the beautiful performances and equally opulent staging can carry the day in the face of decidedly outdated structural, narrative and even societal norms. At face value, with a production as confident, resplendent and exquisitely performed as this current King and I, there’s life in the old ‘golden era’ dogs yet. And yet, as time marches on, and audience sensitivities march right along with it, there will almost inevitably come a day when simply ‘whistling a happy tune’ over it all will no longer cut the mustard.

Until then – shall we dance?

As sumptuously staged and gorgeously performed as musical theatre gets. Much like our own monarch, here’s a ‘King’ perhaps showing its age, possibly a trifle outdated, but getting the job done admirably, nonetheless.

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