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11th May 2023

Review: The King & I

The King and I is a sumptuous delight and daringly sociopolitical
Review: The King & I

The Lincoln Centre’s adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King & I has made its way to the Palace Theatre in Manchester for a 5-night stay, as part of its second UK tour.

The story follows the young widow Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechey) as she arrives in Siam with her son, Louis, to teach the King’s favoured wives and children about the English language, customs, costumes and traditions. Anna comes face to face with a king as stubborn and sharp-witted as she is, and she struggles to accept the king’s controlling, misogynistic and polyamorous ways. Hosting a range of classic songs like ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘Getting to Know You’ the show will have you humming all the way home.

The King and I has had a long history across multiple entertainment genres, with the musical itself being based on Margaret London’s book Anna and the King of Siam (1944), and that being derived from the real Anna Leonowens’ stories and memoirs from the 1860s. It also received two film adaptations, with the original starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner and the latter being an animation made in 1999.

Like his production of My Fair Lady, Bartlett Sher’s musical kept the heart of the original movie adaptation alive with its dazzlingly re-imagined sets and costumes and a cast of talented singers, dancers and performers as they performed intricate dances, hit unbelievable notes and stunned the audience with a perfectly balanced emotional and comedic storyline.

Whilst I cannot account for the accuracy of the portrayal of Siam and its people, I must say they did a spectacular job representing female oppression, whether it be in the form of slavery, love-sickness or general judgements and hierarchies.

Whilst the play largely focuses on these themes, the comedy arises from Anna’s stubbornness as a “difficult woman” and the king’s mischievous ways of getting Anna to bow to the ground. This adaptation keeps the misogyny light-hearted and ironic rather than offensive or stale.

It’s ironic how likable and endearing the King of Siam (Darren Lee) becomes, as he learns to be more gentle, understand other cultures more thoroughly, and no longer sees himself as the omnipotent and omniscient king he once believed himself to be.

The show initially started with a luxurious golden curtain being pulled away before a thin screen is brought forward and again removed to reveal a life-like boat rowing towards the crowd in the steam. After it docks, several citizens gather around some marketplace props before the stage is transformed again as Anna enters the palace, whose walls will serve as the backdrop confining Anna and Tuptim in different moments of their lives there.

Large pillars, chandeliers, and desks form the general room of the palace, which will later include a dollhouse set, a cartographer’s map and school room, sewing machines, the Buddha or even a bed.

The most gorgeous transformation, however, has to be the garden with its palace walls, pink lighting and hanging vines as it becomes the backdrop for Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) and Lun-Tha’s (Dean John-Wilson) secret meetings.

Costumes were intricately designed, whether it be the ‘Western people Funny’ ballgowns and tuxedos, or the more slim-lined ‘Eastern’ attire with their gorgeous sequinned headdresses, golden embellishments and even realistic jewellery and tiaras.

Every cast member had a stunning voice and achieved gorgeous harmonies and effects, but I was particularly taken aback by the breath-taking vocal agility of Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) as her heavenly operatic voice soared through the pillars of the Palace, setting me on the verge of tears with the believable passion and yearning for her lover in My Lord and Master.

Prince Chulalongkorn (Caleb Lagayan) was also phenomenal in the comedic duo ‘Puzzlement (Reprise)’, where his similarities to his father are highlighted in little catchphrases, yet his willingness to admit to his mistakes and confusion highlight his potential as a just future king.

One of the factors that makes the music so interesting and unpredictable is the rapid changes it can bring, with singers moving from low to high notes, staccato to elongated and fluctuating seamlessly. The show was truly remarkable, capturing the lives of royalty from centuries ago in a fun and spirited musical spectacular.

The King and I runs at Palace Theatre Manchester from May 9 to 13 and tours the UK until mid November. It then takes up residency at the Dominion Theatre in the West End, from January 20 to March 2.  Get your tickets and snacks etc. etc. before they run out!

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