Following in the footsteps of the 1956 Walter Lang-directed movie, featuring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner – which in turn is based on the 1951 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical – the current touring production of The King And I is a living testimony to how great stories can stand the test of time and still have something meaningful to say in an ever-changing world.
Based on the real-life memoirs of Anna Leonowens who served as the governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand), the musical’s message and appeal is as relevant as ever. Wrestling with existential questions – the responsibility that comes with great power and influence; learning humility in light of new scientific, cultural, geographical and religious knowledge; and showing love and compassion to those seemingly alien to oneself – The King And I does this to dramatic and powerful effect with performances that shine brighter than any kingly splendour.
Directed by Barlett Sher, the performance is a rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s original and coasts very close to the better-known movie. The lead performances of Annalene Beechey (playing Leonowens) and Darren Lee (playing the King) are exceptional: heartfelt vocals, comedy timing and emotive deliveries of the characters’ personal culture war delivered with tenderness and grace amidst the conflict.
Other notable performances include that of Tuptim (played by Marienella Phillips) – given as a gift to the King from his counterpart in Burma, though her heart lies with Lun Tah (Dean John-Wilson) and lead wife Lady Thiang (Cezarah Bonner). Prince Chulalongkorn (Caleb Lagayan) also shines, his despair and wrestling with the coming weight of glory, well depicted. With great costume design, set pieces and a live orchestra providing the musical score, The King And I ticks all the boxes and includes all the main numbers, from I Whistle A Happy Tune to Getting To Know You and Something Wonderful.
For this reviewer, the show hits one of its high points when the children act out Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the visiting British emissaries. With traditional Thai costumes, dance and musical score, this section is a sight to behold and helps offer an interesting and creative segue to what is the main body of the play. Equally challenging and accessible, it’s also charming, elegant, emotive and entertaining.
The King And I, New Theatre, Cardiff, Wed 22 Nov
On until Sat 25 Nov. Tickets: £26-£53. Info: here
words OLIVER R. MOORE-HOWELLS