Iconic as it is, The King and I is a controversial and problematic musical. From its embrace of yellowface to its caricatures of East-Asians, there’s a debate whether it is a timeless classic or an ancient relic. However, this most recent production has made a clear effort to stray away from orientalism. Its set (Michael Yeargan) and costumes (Catherine Zuber), though neither lacking in majesty, are less pantomime-like and more realistic than previous productions.
After seeing this production on the West End, I worried I’d be dissatisfied by a touring version. However, I was impressed by the continued perfection of the musical. The ensemble had largely the same cast as the West End production, so they’d had plenty of time to perfect their roles. Annalene Beechey shone as the main character Anna. Beechey was the understudy for Kelli O’Hara on the West End, who won a Tony Award for the role on Broadway. O’Hara is ‘Broadway’s undisputed Queen’ (The Times), yet, thanks to Beechey’s equally angelic performance, I quickly stopped comparing the two. Beechey did not disappoint with the classic songs ‘Getting to Know You’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’, the latter of which received a roaring applause.
The eponymous King, most famously played by Yul Brynner onstage and onscreen, was played by Jose Llana. Llana’s performance was grand and royal. He added sympathy and likeability to a ruthless character, and he somehow managed to both infuriate and humour the audience.
My favourite character was Lady Thiang, the King’s Head Wife (Cezarah Bonner). Thiang’s devotion to her difficult and tyrannical husband invoked frustration, sympathy and admiration, with her solo ‘Something Wonderful’ softening the character and making us understand her viewpoint.
Even better, though, was the wives’ performance of ‘Western People Funny,’ which is sung when Anna instructs everybody to dress and act “Western”. Whilst the song has been removed from other productions for being offensive, this production presented it as Lady Thiang and the wives sticking a middle-finger up to Anna’s cultural colonialism. As the wives say, ‘to prove we’re not barbarians, they dress us up like savages…’ The King and Thiang may be flawed, but so is Anna, yet the musical seems to present her as completely genuine and kind-hearted. Well-intended she may be, but she’s just as problematic as the other characters.
The costumes (Zuber) were a stand-out of this musical: Anna’s dramatic purple ball-gown was simply divine and a great piece of nostalgia for anyone who’s seen the classic films. The orchestra was incredible, the show opened with a long overture, a great way to transport the audience into the historic, foreign land of Siam.
The King and I is a musical masterpiece, and I’d definitely see it again! Though dated, I appreciate the effort made to politically modernise the musical.