The King and I represents an incredible success story in Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's body of work which, when one considers the scale of their accomplishments in musical theatre, is quite a statement. For some, this story has been immortalised by the 1956 film adaptation starring Yul Brynner as the king, winning him an Academy Award for Best Actor in the process. The musical remains a firm stage favourite as well and this production at the Manchester Opera House by no means dampens that reputation.
As is the case with the film, the highlight is the 'play within a play' that occurs in act two. All technical aspects of the production come together beautifully during the 15 minutes in which the audience, and the majority of the characters onstage, are treated to a Siamese ballet interpretation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Christopher Gattelli's choreography and Catherine Zuber's costume design are a joy to behold in this scene – it just seems a shame that the rest of the two hour and 55 minute running time rarely reaches such heights again.
In fairness, Michael Yeargan's set design is consistently excellent, right from the very opening with Anna's ship slithering its way onto the stage buoyed by billows of smoke. The sheer size and depth of the Opera House means it seems built to host intimidating spaces such as the King's palace – huge palatial columns glide across the stage frequently, emphasising the scale and eminence of the imperial architecture. Further delights are the scenes with Kamm Kunaree and Kavin Panmeechao, starring as Tuptim and Lun Tha respectively, as scores of hanging flowers are suspended from the ceiling. Combined with Donald Holder's subtle lighting, it is easy to be utterly drawn into the isolated world of the forbidden lovers as they make their way through numbers such "We Kiss In A Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed", with the latter in particular a highlight.
The rest of the cast give solid if unspectacular performances – dialogue feels slightly wooden and forced at the beginning but this is largely eradicated by the close once the production works into a rhythm. Those on stage are largely overshadowed by those in the orchestra – some of the string work in particular is superb and Andy Barnwell (orchestral manager) deserves praise at this juncture.
Ultimately what is most troubling about this performance is not the acting or costumes or any technical aspects but rather the story itself. Director Bartlett Sher may view Rodgers and Hammerstein as "good liberals investigating… cultural issues" in The King and I, but Anna's prominent role evokes questions over a white saviour complex. There is unquestionably an underlying arrogance to this story, perhaps typified best by a remark from the privileged British teacher that "I am from a civilised land called Wales". Evidently one might argue that this is beyond the point of the musical, that The King and I is supposed to be a light-hearted comedy. In truth, trying to understand the tale as a dated farce is one of the best ways to deal with the more offensive aspects of the story.