THE KING AND I
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st March 2023
There is no king on the poster, only the I, selling the show on its female lead, Call The Midwife’s Helen George. Unfortunately, for this press night performance, Ms George is indisposed (perhaps a midwife crisis) and so there are more than a few disgruntled childbirth fans in the auditorium tonight. To my mind, the show is the star. A Rodgers & Hammerstein classic? It hardly matters who is in it.
Taking the role of Anna Leonowens tonight is Maria Coyne, and she is fabulous. We are not being short-changed in any way. She may not portray a midwife but she certainly delivers.
The plot centres around the widowed Anna arriving in Bangkok with her young son. She has found employment at the palace, as a Julie Andrews figure to the King’s many, many children. There follows a clash of cultures and a growing respect and indeed friendship between the schoolmistress and the monarch. As I’ve said, Maria Coyne is splendid in the part, forthright in her opinions and wryly amused by the King’s mangling of the English language. Her voice suits this old-school kind of musical extremely well.
Old-school? I mean, classic. Director Bartlett Sher doesn’t tamper with the material, emphasising what makes the show an all-time great, while playing down stereotypical representations. There’s enough to give us a taste of Siam in the gorgeous set by Michael Yeargan and the graceful choreography by Christopher Gattelli, combining traditional Siamese and balletic movements.
Darren Lee rules as the King of Siam, bombastic at first and overbearing, but with insecurities and vulnerabilities, and especially, a playfulness in his dealings with the unruly teacher. He and Coyne are a dream pairing. The mutual affection and frustration between the characters sparkles. Lee definitely deserves to be on the poster.
At this performance, the role of Tuptim is played by Amelia Kinu Muus, who is a strong and emotive soprano. Her duets with Dean John Wilson are definite highlights, as they power through some of Richard Rodgers’s most romantic melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s most searing lyrics. Another belter of a moment comes from Cezarah Bonner’s Lady Thiang, whose solo gives me shivers. Truly, ‘something wonderful’.
Caleb Lagayan impresses as the young Crown Prince, with a powerful singing voice that belies the character’s self-doubts. His first entrance is a stark, dramatic contrast to the cutesy kowtowing of the King’s other children. Also strong is Charlie McGuire as Anna’s son Louis in an assured and mature performance.
There is drama, there is humour, there is something about gender roles and challenging the entrenched attitudes of the patriarch. There is something about European interference. There is the marvellous play-within-a-play: a staging of Uncle Tom’s Cabin through the prism of Siamese dance and theatrical conventions – an absolutely delightful piece of storytelling. Catherine Zuber’s beautiful costume designs allow for plenty of melodramatic swishing of fabric and add to the sense of another place in another time.
This no-nonsense production reminds us why the show is one of the greatest musicals and why Rodgers & Hammerstein are geniuses. Captivating, involving and powerful, this show will entertain and move you, and get you humming all those great tunes all the way home.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
We are Siamese if you please: The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Photo: Johan Persson)