By Jessica Durston
I was delighted to have been invited back to the New Theatre for the opening press night of the classical Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The King and I.
The musical stage show is based on the popular film from the 1950s, which itself was based on the novel Anna And The King of Siam by Margaret Landon. The book and lyrics were put together by Oscar Hammerstein II and the music was composed by Richard Rodgers. The story follows Anna, a British school teacher who is hired by the King of Siam (or Thailand as it is known now) in an attempt to help modernise the country, by teaching his children and staff about the world - specifically the West.
Anna and the King clash and represent the divide and the differences between the ways of the East and the ways of the West. The pair eventually get to know one another and discover the juxtaposing worlds and learn to accept and even admire each other’s opposing thoughts and characteristics.
Furthermore, discovery, science, and belief systems are big themes within the musical (reflecting the interest in discovery that was taking place during the Victorian era), alongside love, identity, and devotion to culture. Feminism is also a theme well incorporated in the narrative. Anna is a strong, educated, female character who is vocal about her beliefs, and the palace of Siam is overrun with the King’s many wives, who are led by Lady Thiang. Lady Thiang seems to be the force behind the King at many points throughout the narrative and although devoted to him, seems to understand how to use her influence inconspicuously.
Directed by Bartlett Sher, the show feels very high brow with its elevated performances, costume, props, elegant set design and choreography. Teamed with the operatic vocals from some of the performers and the orchestra, The King and I: The Musical has high-production written all over it.
But first, let’s discuss the cast. Maria Coyne had the role of Anna (or ‘Mrs Anna’ as she is referred to by the dignitaries in Siam). She had the poise, class, and decorum of Julie Andrews and was a perfect choice for the female protagonal role in the musical.
Opposite Maria in the role of the King of Siam was Brian Rivera. He was well-cast in the male titular role with his commanding presence, and brought great humour to the show. He seemed to embody Yul Brynner’s brash but loveable performance from the musical film without becoming a carbon copy. Plenty of integrated humour within the show was a result of the leading pair being so different and often misunderstanding one another. Maria and Brian’s chemistry was wonderful and they played off of each other very well.
Cezarah Bonner was cast as the infallible Lady Thiang and gave a brilliant performance. Her grandeur and her impressive vocals ensured she was a focal point during her solo numbers, and the scenes with the other many wives of the King.
Additionally, Marienella Phillips took on the role of Princess Tuptim, and Dean John-Wilson was cast as Lun Tha. The pair complemented each other well as the tragic young couple, and their numbers together (We Kiss In A Shadow) contained beautiful harmonies and were emotionally stirring. Marienella has performed in operas prior to this musical, and her classical vocal training really shone through during her solos.
Caleb Lagayan also stood out as the young Prince. A junior to the rest of his castmates, Caleb held his own and I was impressed with his portrayal of the proud and stubborn, yet sensitive son of the King of Siam. His vocals were sharp and strong and he demanded attention.
The production also had quite a few young actors playing the roles of the King of Siam’s children. All of the little thespians were very sweet, controlled, professional, and entertaining. The young actor with the most stage time was Charlie McGuire who was playing Anna’s son, Louis. He came into his own during the musical and seemed at home with the other trained adult performers.
Moreover, great scene building was achieved within the musical with the set design from Michael Yeargan. Large set pieces were wheeled on and off stage and a changeable backdrop could be pulled up and down to suggest a swap of setting from interior to exterior. You really felt as if you were inside the palace walls in Siam. The whole of the New Theatre stage really was utilised for The King and I.
To conceal the changes that the players were making to the set, a grand, golden curtain would be pulled across and then whipped away after a minute or so to reveal the new sense of place. While this was happening there would often be a little scene with dialogue between two of the characters, or a dance break with some of the talented swing cast members. These set changes were so smooth and professional and made the production feel grandiose.
When watching the show, accompanied by the fantastic orchestra team, you felt as though you had stepped into the Rodgers and Hammerstein film from 1956. The bright and beautifully detailed costumes from Catherine Zuber also created a real sense of the 1860s time period. Anna’s big hoop-skirted dresses in particular, were stunning.
As well as the spectacular costumes, the Thai dance choreography helped to transport the audience members to Bangkok. The swing cast, clothed in traditional Thai garments, conducted impressive displays of cultural dance that mesmerised everyone in the theatre. The musical is practically dripping with Thai culture.
Furthermore, the section where the cast performed Princess Tuptim’s ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet’ was absolutely breathtaking - a real treat for the eyes. I was mesmerised from start to finish by the use of dance, sound, narration and masks and props during this section. The choreography from Christopher Gattelli (based on the original choreography from Jerome Robbins) was like nothing I have ever seen before. Truly a thing of beauty.
Another number I wish to mention in more detail is the iconic ‘Shall We Dance?’ This will be the song that most people will recognise from the film (alongside ‘Getting to Know You’) - and its transition on to the stage did not disappoint. Maria Coyne and Brian Rivera whirled around and around and brought a smile to everyone’s face. The main actors’ classical vocals and wonderful footwork made this well-known scene a joy to watch.
Additionally, another great number involved all of the King of Siam’s wives together dressing in Western gowns and hooped skirts, singing about how the ‘West is strange’. This humorous little song showcased the female cast members in all their glory, battling with fashions that are ‘strange’ to them. It was a memorable scene for me with the clever stage blocking to use all the space available, and the attention to detail within the Western costume the ladies were reluctantly putting on and confounded by.
This heartwarming and traditional musical really can be enjoyed by anyone, and I would encourage musical fans, or those that wish to be whisked away to another time and place for the night, to buy themselves a ticket. The show is like no other - and you’ll simply have to see it to understand!
More information about The King and I: The Musical can be found at https://kingandimusical.co.uk/
More information about the New Theatre and its upcoming productions can be found online at https://www.atgtickets.com/venues/new-theatre-oxford/