The King and I at Royal Albert Hall

The King and I
Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein I based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon

The King Mongkut of Siam – Daniel Dae Kim
Anna Leonowens – Maria Friedman
Lady Thiang – Jee Hyun Lim
Lun Tha – Ethan Le Phong
Tuptim – Yanle Zhong
The Kralahome – David Yip
Sir Edward Ramsay – Michael Simkins
Captain Orton – Stephen Scott
Louis Leonowens – Louis Cornay
Prince Chulalongkorn – Tony Nguyen
Princess Ying Yeowlak – Emily Lue-Fong

The Small House of Uncle Thomas:
Eliza – Miwa Saeki
Uncle Thomas – Aiko Kato
Little Eva – Karen Cadogan
Angel George – Victoria Sahakian Rogers
Simon Legree – Adam Wong
Topsy – Azumi Ono

Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra
Gareth Valentine

Jeremy Sams – Director
Robert Jones – Set & Costume Designer
Susan Kikuchi – Choreographer
Andrew Bridge – Lighting Designer
Bobby Aitken – Sound Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 13 June, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The idea of “The King and I” as a theatrical production came in 1950 via the manager of actress Gertrude Lawrence who had read Margaret Landon’s book “Anna and the King of Siam”. The initial plan was to adapt it as a play (there had already been a film based on the book with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne) but Lawrence’s manager thought a musical would be even better. Lawrence wanted Cole Porter as composer but he turned it down. When it was sent to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein they refused because Lawrence’s singing voice was weak but, seeing the book’s dramatic possibilities, they changed their minds.

Casting began by suggesting Rex Harrison again but he was already committed elsewhere. Noël Coward wouldn’t appear in a long-running show unless it was one of his own, and Alfred Drake wouldn’t commit for longer than six months. At the auditions for a leading-man Yul Brynner turned up, got the job and the rest is musical-theatre history. For nearly sixty years the show has been regularly revived, often with Brynner who made it his signature theatre role.

The show’s lasting appeal probably lies mainly in the music – the score is packed with perennially favourite songs – and the story, which is basically a romantic encounter between two very incongruous people and their totally different ways of life, is presented with both dramatic and comedic elements. Although Landon’s book is a novel, it is based on real characters. Mrs Anna Leonowens was an English widow who went to Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860s to teach the King’s many children. The author researched her material when she and her husband returned to the USA from being missionaries in Siam in the 1920s and 1930s.

When Anna first encounters the King she is appalled by his behaviour. He treats her merely as a servant who must obey him at all times and always stand or squat below him, never at the same level. His promise of her own house has not materialised and she is to live in the Palace instead. He has a harem of wives and, according to the book, over sixty children with more on the way. However, as Lady Thiang explains, the King is a complex man and, however barbaric he may seem, he is still the person she loves. He also needs someone like Anna to guide him on how to behave with visiting foreign dignitaries and to show them that Siam is a civilised country. She helps him prepare a banquet for a British delegation and in return he promises her a house in Bangkok.

The banquet is a success and gradually both sides become more relaxed in each other’s company. Is it just respect, mutual admiration or something more? They become even closer when Anna teaches the King how to dance. However, there remains an example of the King’s former barbarity in his attitude towards his latest young wife, Tuptim, and her love for Lun Tha, the man who delivered the King’s new bride. When the young lovers try to run away, Tuptim is captured and the King threatens to flog her but cannot while Anna is still present. He leaves, feeling he has lost his power. Anna subsequently decides to leave for England but Lady Thiang persuades her to visit the King on his deathbed. The King’s son, young as he is, begins to lead his people, taking tolerance and humanity as learned from Anna who decides to stay in Bangkok for the sake of the children.

It is a sad story, if one told with inaccuracy, about which the Thai people complained. However, that did not stop “The King and I” from being a huge success with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner (on the stage and in the cinema). When it opened on Broadway in 1951 little was known about Siam. The show had a certain exoticism about it. Rodgers’s score in no way resembles Thai music but it does sound vaguely oriental. ‘The March of the Siamese Children’, in which the children are presented to Anna, succeeds as much for the sound of the music as it does for the parade of the little boys and girls.

This is where Raymond Gubbay’s production directed by Jeremy Sams scores well – in colourful processions of the children or in the ballet for “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”, with inspirational choreography by Susan Kikuchi. The settings of burnished gold and the costumes by Robert Jones cannot fail to impress, even if the performance based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, in which Tuptim draws parallels between the slavery at the time of the American Civil war and the oppression and slavery exhibited by the King of Siam, has now become something of a bore.

In general “The King and I” sits none too comfortably in the vast space of the Royal Albert Hall. Previous Gubbay productions here have included “Tosca”, “Aïda”, “Madama Butterfly”, “La bohème” and “Show Boat”, most of which have been shown off to advantage. The dialogue scenes in “The King and I”, however, lack intimacy and often the sound booms and is muffled or distorted. The music and the individual songs fare better. The singers are fine and the orchestra sound is admirably rich in tone and not over-amplified. ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’, ‘Hello, Young Lovers’, ‘Getting to Know You’, ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’, ‘Something Wonderful’, ‘I Have Dreamed’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’ all push the story ahead, telling in song what the characters are feeling emotionally. It is a very good and fulfilling score with easy-going, unpretentious lyrics (no larks learning to pray here) and arguably is one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s best, although now it is stranded in an old-fashioned book that takes some digesting.

All the principal performers are faultless: Maria Friedman who, at a distance resembles Deborah Kerr or even Angela Lansbury (who was in the 1977 Broadway revival) is admirably school-ma’amish without losing any of her female appeal, a tough, no-nonsense cookie who can face-down any old King of Siam, although how she manages to both wear and dance in a huge dress resembling a giant gold-lamé lampshade, is quite mystifying. Daniel Dae Kim (from television’s “Lost”) is a charismatic King, perhaps not quite as brutal as Brynner, but he does instil a kind of humanity in this ambiguous character. Jee Hyun Lim as Lady Thiang impresses in her solo ‘Something Wonderful’, Yanle Zhing as Tuptim and Ethan Le Phong as Lun Tha make a convincing pair of young lovers while David Yip is harsh severity writ large in the role of the Kralahome, the Siamese Prime Minister.

In all, this is a less than totally successful staging but it gets by on the music which still works both lyrically and emotionally and will ultimately be the show’s greatest appeal.

  • The King and I is at the Royal Albert Hall until Sunday 28 June 2009: Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2.30 p.m.
  • Tickets on 020 7838 3100
  • Royal Albert Hall

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