The King and I is only the fifth musical by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II and many people have experienced it through the 1956 film which led to many Broadway and West End revivals. Perhaps the most successful of these revivals opened in 2015 on Broadway directed by Bartlett Sher and starred Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe, featuring Ruthie Ann Miles. After winning three Tony Awards this production was taken on a US National tour and transferred to the London Palladium all culminating in this current UK tour. Prior to the 2015 revival, my experience with The King and I had come through both a 1999 animated film which used the songs and names of the musical production and 1956 straight to film adaptation. However, after watching clips from the Tony Awards I became far more interested in the new adaptation of such a famous musical beloved by my mum and grandmother. As I wasn’t aware of the plans to embark on a UK tour, I did also take my mum to see the live cinema screening of this production from the London Palladium, so I have seen this production in full before with Kelly O’Hara. Due to this, and the classic nature of the show, this review will predominately focus on the new cast members whilst also addressing some areas of the plot. So, I was lucky enough to be invited to see the current UK tour on its press night at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Whilst I was invited to press night, and given my tickets in exchange for a review, all views are my own.
Based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, in turn, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens written whilst she was governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s, The King and I depicts Anna’s experiences as a British schoolteacher hired as part of the King’s drive to modernize his country.
Even Sher has described The King and I as “essentially a very large-scale two-person show” and the pressure on Maria Coyne (Anna Leonowens) and Jose Llana (King of Siam) cannot be avoided. You simply cannot take your attention away from Coyne’s portrayal of Anna Leonowens. She is the definition of grace, poise and elegance effortlessly embodying the class of a woman unapologetically making her own way. Like those before her in this revival, such as Kelli O’Hara and Laura Michelle Kelly, Coyne ensures that the very statement of Anna’s character remains apparent as she is an inspiration within the historical context, but her words and ideas remain as impactful for the current audience. Coyne also makes it clear that Anna is compromising by understanding the people at the heart of the culture surrounding her rather than submitting to any uncharacteristic pressure. She also brings a distinct lightness through her voice to her solos, especially ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’, ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ and even ‘Shall I Tell You What I Think of You’, which easily distinguishes her.
Jose Llana appears here reprising his role as the King of Siam after appearing opposite Kelly O’Hara in the 2015 Broadway production and headlining the US National tour. I was pleasantly surprised by the line toed by this production between the likeability of the King of Siam and the complexities of his rulings, beliefs and methods. Llana’s portrayal allows the King of Siam to be genuinely funny and charming and you never feel that anything is put on or contrived. You can see Llana’s comfort in the role, but he avoids the pitfall of stilted lines which sound over-rehearsed. Unless handled with care the consistent pull between love and conflict present between Anna and the King of Siam can appear to be shifted only by the plot. However, that is not the case here. In this production, the shifts in tone between them feel entirely driven by the characters themselves and it’s refreshing to see such a character-driven relationship acted out so intricately between Coyne and Llana.
There may be no doubting the vitality of Anna’s relationship with the King of Siam as the show comes to hinge upon it. However, this revival, in general, has done wonderful things for the character of Lady Thiang famously portrayed by Ruthie Ann Miles when the show ran on Broadway and the West End. Cezarah Bonner returns to the show, after playing Tuptim on the previous UK Tour, to portray Lady Thiang with a grace distinct from Anna’s but just as powerful. Highlighting their interconnecting roles as lovers and mothers, Bonner’s clear voice fills the room during ‘Something Wonderful’ rewarding both the audience and Anna with stunning character interest. I was also lucky to catch Jessica Gomes-Ng as Tup Tim alongside Ethan Le Phong as Lun Tha. They both inject a vital lightness, despite the anxieties of their situation, through their voices which reflect the ability to remain light and optimistic. I also enjoyed the intricate interweaving of their story with Anna’s and I always come away from this show wanting more insight into these two characters alongside Lady Thiang despite the musical’s three-hour length.
As they draw these excellent actors together, Michael Yeargan’s sets and Donald Holder’s lighting design are the true highlights of this production. They are absolutely gorgeous and the true magical dusting on the top are Catherine Zuber’s costumes. Anna’s dresses, in particular, are absolutely gorgeous and only add to the mesmerising quality of Anna’s portrayal in this production. Christopher Gattelli ensures that the intricacies of the choreography reflect Jerome Robbins’ original movement and the result is truly a spectacle.
However, during ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Ballet)’, I didn’t at any time feel the weight of the diplomatic visit to Siam. Up to this point the King of Siam’s primary concern is the constant comparative independence of Siam to other countries becoming protectorates of France of Great Britain, as reflected in Anna’s country. As this leads to the vital plot point of the barbarian stereotype placed on the King, and the later complexity that he only understands the weakening of this by spying on the very people who believe him to be a barbarian, the diplomatic visit is a major turning point in the show with considerable build-up. Simply, it should have a lot of weight behind it as a sequence. I just didn’t feel that from this production. I understand that this comes down to the intricacies of the number of actors able to be hired especially as these actors wouldn’t necessarily be able to double up in any other roles especially as the roles of Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsay are already played by Philip Bulcock together. However, I feel that there perhaps should have been more diplomats or dignitaries in attendance as throughout the entire production Sir Edward Ramsey is the only one present. I simply feel that a larger watching presence would have emphasised the necessity for the King of Siam to present a good image to this mass of strangers and the impact they may have should anything go against the King’s plans. I did also notice a couple of sound, lighting and set hiccups which I imagine only occurred as they’ve just moved into the venue and they’ll be smoothed out in no time.
Overall, this show is an absolute delight. It is a piece of artistry especially present in the design elements such as set, lighting and costume. The cast also do absolute justice to each of their roles creating a joyful show leaving you humming the tunes as soon as you leave! The King and I is running at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 18th of January, before continuing its UK tour, and you can purchase your tickets here!
Maria Coyne is standby Anna Leonowens and the role is predominately portrayed by Annalene Beechey.
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