LIFESTYLE | THEATRE

Theatre Review: The King And I

Violi Calvert

So good you have to watch it twice. VIOLI CALVERT attends the opening night of The King And I and tells why she plans to see it again.

The much-awaited Sydney season of the ‘The King and I’ after its shows in Brisbane and Melbourne has come! It was fantastic that a friend and I got lucky to watch it on the opening night at no less than Australia’s iconic Sydney Opera House last Thursday (11 September).

At the end of the show, it received a standing ovation. The appreciative audience confirmed that indeed ‘The King and I’ was deserving of the 2014 Helpmann Award for ‘Best Musical’.

There was lively cheering for the cast, who brought alive on stage the characters in the story of “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon set to the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The crowd also applauded the amazing set and costumes, sound and lighting, and the music from the orchestra.

As soon as we entered the theatre hall to go to our seats, we were transported back to the royal palace of Siam (now Thailand).  Our senses were treated to the scent of incense, the soft background music, the sight of monks with clasped hands in prayers and the brightly coloured and intricately designed doors to the palace.

The costume was dazzling and colourful so no surprise that it had earned Roger Kirk the 2014 Helpmann in 'Best Costume Design'; with Michael Waters’ talent also being awarded for the ‘Best Sound Design’.

The musical has been admired by thousands of people over the years. The first time I saw the ‘The King and I’ was more than 20 years ago, in 1991, when the role of Anna (teacher/governess) was played by American female actor Hayley Mills.  This year’s reprisal of the musical by Opera Australia and John Frost stars Lisa McCune. She is a household name in Australia from her various roles on TV sitcoms and later established herself on stage, notably as Nellie Forbush in the Australian tour of South Pacific for Opera Australia. Her performance also earned her a Helpmann Award nomination for ‘Best Female Actor in a Musical’.

Hayley Mills and Lisa McCune both played the role of the caring but feisty governess superbly. I would say though that McCune’s voice was stronger and her acting was more convincing.

International stage actor Teddy Tahu Rhodes’ strong vocals and imposing presence on stage suited the role of the great King of Siam perfectly. The chemistry between him and Lisa McCune was quite palpable. There were no faltering and hesitation on lines, songs and dance moves in the engaging, exhilarating and, at times, comic scenes they shared. 

The role of the Kralahome (Prime Minister) was delivered well by Marty Rhone who was also nominated for the ‘2014 Helpmann Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical’. As the King’s right hand man, the Kralahome expressed in an affecting manner his deep anguish watching his strong King slowly being influenced by the “scientific teacher” and moving away from their traditions and beliefs. Rhone’s  previous stage roles include being in the London production of  ‘The King and I’ alongside Yul Bryner and the Australian production of ‘Godspell’.  

The vocal renditions were fantastic.  I was going to name one or two which are my favourites, but in the end gave up as I liked them all. The ensemble is to be credited not just for their singing but their crisp and precisely-executed dance routines.

Talking of the ensemble, I am proud to say that nine of the cast are Filipino-Australians, including Marcus Rivera, the understudy for The Kralahome. Filipinos are well known for their talents and love for singing and dancing; they have shined and showcased these talents in this musical. Mabuhay!

The King’s children are all ridiculously cute and were confident in doing their roles. There was no hesitation as they moved about and performed their parts.

Kudos must also go to Christopher Kershaw as director. He first staged ‘The King and I’ in Australia in 1991 and subsequently in Broadway which earned him a nomination for a Tony Award.  He was also nominated for the ‘2014 Helpmann Best Direction of a Musical Award’. The show was exhilarating and, in radio parlance, did not have a single instance of ‘dead air’.

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There had been comments and news articles on certain scenes from the play which did not register well on the PC (political correctness) barometer. However, they failed to acknowledge the character Anna’s guts to stand up against the bullying manners of the King and making him fulfil the agreement of building her a house, as well as the King accepting in the end that Anna’s teachings positively influenced the future of his nation. Jenny Liu touched our heart strings with her expression of deep longing for her lover Lun Tha (played by Filipino-Australian Adrian Li Donni).

I highly recommend watching the show. In fact I am happy to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly that I am going to see it again next week. ‘The King And I’ musical is one exquisite piece of entertainment that will continue to enthrall its audiences in the years to come.

A group of 62 people, including this writer, will attend the 7.30pm, September 23 performance of The King And I. For tickets, http://thekingandimusical.com.au.

Photo credit: The King And I Official Facebook Page

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