The King and I at New Wimbledon Theatre
The King and I is a classic musical that I feel like all musical theatre nerds watched in their childhood, not me. I have managed to get to my 3*cough* years of age and managed to get through life never seeing the film or stage show. Luckily with its tour stopping at New Wimbledon Theatre I managed to put this right.
The King and I tell of Anna, a widow, who arrives in Siam with her son to teach the King’s children. Throughout the show Anna not only teaches English to the children and his wives but also becomes a friend and confidant to many of them. She is unafraid to stand up to the King and in particular with her views on feminism and how respect should be paid to the King but in doing so earns his trust and friendship. The musical is based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam, which in turn is based upon the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a governess to the King’s children in the early 1860’s. There is much in the show that perhaps they get away with due to the fact that does have some truth in the matter, although many historians now question the accuracy of Leonowen’s memoirs let alone the fictionalised spin on the musical.
The success of this show hugely depends on the casting of Anna and the King of Siam. Luckily this production gets it spot on. Anna is played by Helen George and Darren Lee takes on the King of Siam. Lee plays this role to utter perfection, with a cheeky glint in his eye and a convincing portrayal of a man trying to do his best whilst battling with tradition. The audience instantly warm to him and as a consequence you will Anna and The King’s unlikely relationship to succeed. Helen George as Anna has huge vocal demands placed upon her and whilst her acting skills are well renown less is known about her singing ability. George displayed a classical legit musical theatre voice that made it clear that her singing prowess is just as impressive as her acting chops. One thing I had not expected from The King and I was to laugh so much. George and Lee frequently had me laughing out loud at unexpected moments but then were easily able to take the audience from those moments filled with laughter through to the more tender and tear inducing ending.
The rest of the cast were equally as strong as George and Lee. Cezarah Bonner as Lad Thang came across with incredible poise and as a woman who was able to influence the King but in very different ways to Anna. The young lovers of Tuptim and Lun Tha were played by Marienella Phillips and Dean John-Wilson who sang their duet ‘We Kiss In A Shadow’ beautifully. Phillips starring moment for me however was her narration of ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas,’ and what followed for her. I should also mention the talented children that make up the royal children in the show as well as Anna’s son Louis. All of the children very much had their own personality and this was maintained, not only throughout their introduction during the ‘March of the Royal Siamese Children,’ but throughout the rest of the show.
The show itself is full of wonderful songs that even if you don’t know the musical well you will know the music, including ‘Getting To Know You,’ which was utterly joyful with the young cast on stage, ‘I Whistle A Happy Tune,’ which sets the high bar for the rest of the show and finally ‘ Shall We Dance?’ which was simply one of the highlights of the evening. These iconic songs by Rogers and Hammerstein as well as the songs I discovered throughout the show were done justice by an orchestra of 11. It is unusual in touring productions to have an orchestra of this size but this production would not have been the same without them. From the moment they struck up the overture the audience was transported back to the days of golden musicals and their playing during the whole show but in particular during the ballet number, was nothing short of sublime.
The set by Michael Yeargan was perfect for this show, from the initial reveal of Anna’s boat she was arriving on, through to the columns of the Royal Palace. It consistently helped create a sense of place but was fluid enough to ensure that the pace of the show could flow. Costume design by Catherine Zuber was equally as wonderful, everything from Anna’s large hoop dresses through to the colourful contrasting dresses worn by the King’s Wives, helping highlight their differences even further.
This production of The King and I demonstrates just why not all classic musicals need reinventing. The King and I brings together this classic story with sumptuous sets and costume, a sublime orchestra and a cast full of stars.
The King and I is currently touring. You can find out more about the show and where it is touring to on its website.