The King & I dazzles with all the glory of a great Rodgers & Hammerstein musical; filled with splendor, charm and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...
There are very few musicals that feel as timeless as The King & I. From the soaring notes of a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to the beautiful, albeit whimsical, metadramatic retelling of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Bartlett Sher’s rendition is one that captured the original musical with all its grace and grandeur that feels rare for a touring company. In fact, I would argue this is one of the best renditions of The King & I, one that may even, dare I say, leave the rather popular (if rather dated) 1956 film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in its wake. From song to song and act to act, this might quite possibly be one of the best musicals you can see right now.
Written during the golden age of musicals, The King & I, tells the story of a Welsh widowed mother, Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechey), who travels to Siam to teach the King of Siam’s (Darren Lee) children. While at first abhorrent of Siam’s customs and the King’s views on women, Anna soon grows to appreciate the King’s ways, showing him how to be a better ruler and a better man for his people. Filled with heartbreak, plays within plays, and a love story between Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) and Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson); The King & I is a classic that rarely needs an introduction or explanation.
There’s something fitting that The King & I opens with an overture, setting up a stunning live orchestra before giving way to a boat swarming centre-stage and launching into one of the musical’s most recognisable songs, ‘I Whistle A Happy Tune.’ It establishes Leonowens’ voice with a soft clarity, that, simply put, was faultless in every note and word she sang. It certainly worked well in contrasting the outstanding vocals of Phillips, who handled the lighter-operatic moments of Tuptim’s voice with an elegant ease, and Cezarah Bonner’s Lady Thiang who often stole and embued a sensitivity to the stage that worked in weathering the strong personalities and clashes between Anna and the King. That’s not to scoff at Lee’s vocals, whose solo song, ‘A Puzzlement’, was equal parts impressive and humorous. However, of the few male voices that fill the songs of The King & I, no one quite stood out as Caleb Lagayan’s Prince Chulalongkorn, who, when reprising ‘A Puzzlement’ lends a particular operatic extension in his lower notes that perfectly contrast the higher, less weathered voice of Harry Altoft’s Louis Leonowens. Yet, these are just a few of the songs in The King & I, and all, without a doubt, would deserve mention in countless other reviews. However, as one of the songs of my childhood, hearing ‘Getting to Know You’ live for the first time was as perfect as could be – capturing the idiosyncratic DNA of The King & I with a sense of awe that almost made me sad when the final notes were delivered.
Despite amazing performances from all the cast and crew, the opening Southampton night was not without its hitches. A forgotten mic had me confused if there was a random tap-dance moment when it crackled audibly over the music, Tuptim’s voice was cut off during ‘The Small House Of Uncle Thomas’ (although this song and ballet was by far the greatest moment of the musical), and occasional cast hiccups (not literal, of course) left a raised eyebrow here and there. Although, while noticeable, rarely did they detract from how perfect The King & I still managed to feel. The strength of this muscial, the cast’s ability to recover and reaffirm themselves as perfectly selected for their roles, and the sheer momentum of the story, often left my few short woes quickly replaced by a smile or a quick laugh at one of the surprisingly frequent witty remarks or jokes. What left me most surprised though is how funny Sher’s The King & I is, recognising a humour and heart to the musical that felt rare, surprising, and masterfully done.
It would have been all too easy to indulge in the grandeur of The King & I. It’s a musical that almost begs for extravagant set pieces and complicated dance numbers, and yet, the adaptation from original choreographer, Jerome Robbins, to Christoper Gattelli’s version highlights how choreography and story should complement rather than outdo one another. It captures the brilliant feel of the musical imagined world of Siam, while never reducing it to a gimmick that relies on sterotypes. The same can be said for Michael Yeargan’s set, and Catherine Zuber’s costume design, which often contrasted the colliding worlds of its characters and their ideals both metaphorically and figuratively, while grounding the play and giving it a distinct feeling of time and place. There’s a transportive quality to The King & I, whether it be the music, its setting in time or its setting in location; whatever it is though, it’s one I wish I could experience again.
I could never recommend a musical more. From Sher’s direction and its outstanding cast to decisions on set design and costume; every cast and crew member felt like masters in their field. While not perfect, I find things rarely are, and that’s why I would urge anyone to see this musical before it leaves Southampton. Simply put, this might be the best musical I have seen yet.
The King & I is currently playing at The Mayflower Theatre in Southampton until July 17th. You can buy tickets here.