If ever there was a musical fit for royalty, the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I’ is it. To give you an idea of the lavishness of this production, the palace and its finery sparkles with almost 250 square metres of gold leaf, and the flower garden fills the stage with 22,000 hand-made blooms.
On Broadway this production won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical Revival and it’s just completed a sell-out run at the London Palladium. It is clear to see where the ticket money is going as there is no paring down for this touring production either. In fact, you could say we get the best of both sides of the Atlantic, with Jose Llana coming direct from his Broadway role as The King and Annalene Beechey reprising her West End role as school teacher, Anna.
These are roles immortalised by Yul Brunner and Deborah Kerr in the 1956 film version, and the songs are equally memorable. From the moment Anna steps off the wooden steam boat whistling a happy tune the audience is lifted-up by Rodger’s soaring score that keeps them floating on the best bright and breezy air of musical theatre.
Although written in 1951 the story goes back much further to Victorian times, inspired by the true story of Anna Leonowens, a British school teacher who is employed by the King of Siam to teach his wives and children. This is the Imperialist World of the 1860s and while the story reflects the time in which it’s set, its openness and joy transcends this.
In Anna and the King, we see two very different worlds collide, not just geographically and culturally, but in terms of gender and wealth. He is the Magnificent one, she a servant – their differences make for fireworks at times, but through bending on both sides they come to genuine love and respect.
Given the setting of the show there are brief moments when we think it’s about to become politically uncomfortable, such as when Anna suggests the King’s wives dress in the large hoop dresses as she does to show their refinement when entertaining European diplomats. But then the comedy sets in as the women see the absurdity of the costumes and Anna, explaining that the large skirt gives the woman a protective space, is met with the King’s puzzled: “Are Western men so aggressive?”
Jose Llana’s absorbing acting can change the mood with a facial expression, bringing a depth and complexity to a King, struggling with modernisation and the type of kingdom he wants his son to inherit.
Annalene Beechey makes a feisty but also sweet and warm Anna, and her clarity of voice is a dream to hear. Together they fizz like intellectual sparring partners rather than romantic lovers, but you can feel the audience’s spirits leap when they polka across the stage to Shall We Dance.
It is rare to feel such warmth and delight from the whole auditorium, but this production won over the audience from the start and held them captivated. It’s joyous and uplifting. Don’t miss it.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Read our interview with stars of the 2019 UK tour of Ghost the musical,
Niall Sheehy, Rebekah Lowings and Jacqui DuBois.