Over half a century since its Broadway premiere, The King and I is still thrilling capacity audiences and receiving standing ovations.
Almost every song is a hummable memory from yesteryear - "Getting to Know You", "Whistle a Happy Tune", "Shall We Dance?", "Hello Young Lovers". All are familiar, well-loved standards now, yet they're performed here as freshly as if for the first time.
Anna, a Victorian English widow, and her ten-year-old son (intelligently played by Joshua Payne) sail to Bangkok where Anna has been appointed schoolteacher to the King of Siam's 70-odd children (depicted, on stage, by just seven - totally entrancing - little ones, aged five upwards). In this well-worn story of culture clash and denied love, Anna shows the King that Englishwomen don't kow-tow while he proves to her that he's not the barbarian she imagines.
Marti Webb, now taken over from Stefanie Powers as Anna, brings a freshness and naturalness to the role, which is reflected in her sometimes unsteady, but very listenable-to and thankfully non-operatic, voice.
Ronobir Lahiri, who understudied the role of the King in the West End, is now centre stage. As his and Anna's relationship develops, the audience warms to him, especially as he shows his vulnerable side and, suddenly, in the words of the song, does "Something Wonderful" to charm us all. Gena Respall playing Chief Wife sings this most magnificent of songs - magnificently! It's a showstopper!
Secondary to the show but no less captivating is the secret love story of Lun Tha (Jo-Jo de la Cerna) and Tuptim (Aura Deva). Their duets ("We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed") are sublime, sensual and heartfelt, with Deva's pure but powerful voice soaring to fill the theatre.
Despite a shaky start with Buddhist monks adorning the stage but unable to capture the audience's attention and ship's rigging that I mistook for Hong Kong bamboo scaffolding, the show is as opulent and lavish as can be imagined. Roger Kirk's costumes are stunning and the Thai ballet-within-a-show exquisite.
Note: The following review dates from April 2002 and the first stop on the current UK tour, when Stefanie Powers played Anna.
Having made waves in Australia, won awards in America and broken records in
the West End, the Christopher Renshaw production of The King and I has set off on a tour of Britain. But while this is a bright, glittering
production, full of vibrancy and verve, don't go believing the hype that it
has come "direct" from the West End. It hasn't: it has come by way of the
trimming shop necessary for any touring production. The cast has changed,
the set is very much curtailed and there are even cuts to the script.
Of these changes, it is the casting that has made the most difference. In the
title roles, Ronobir Lahiri and Stefanie Powers give every appearance of
rather gawky extras parachuted in to a slick, well-oiled musical machine.
Powers, as governess Mrs Anna who goes to 1860s Siam to teach the King's
children English, is adequate when confronted by Oscar Hammerstein's book
and lyrics. Her ability to cope with Richard Rodgers' music, written
specifically for the limited vocal range of Gertrude Lawrence, doesn't
quite achieve that success, however.
Lahiri might have been whistling that happy tune himself in order to get
ready for the role of the King, but if he believes in his character's
omnipotence, he doesn't convince anyone else. Together, however, they do
bring some of the necessary on-stage chemistry to make the plot believable -
and their burling around the stage during "Shall We Dance?" is as delightful
as is necessary.
The real stars of this show are the supporting cast, who work hard to keep
things flowing. The large children's cast are particularly good, never
descending to cloying levels of sweetness while making sure they all get
plenty of laughs. Aura Deva, as Tuptim the slave girl given to the King as
a present, and Gina Raspel, as Lady Thiang his most favoured wife, both
make good use of stunning voices.
If Brian Thomson's sets are not quite as substantial as they might have
been, Roger Kirk's dresses are still to die for. And whatever else is
said about Powers, she certainly knows how to wear them. The whole is not
as accomplished as it aspires to be, but this is still a good and thoroughly
entertaining night out.
- Thom Dibdin (reviewed at the Edinburgh Playhouse)