On Friday night, I attended the lavish and opulent production of Rodger’s and Hammersteins The King and I at the iconic Princess Theatre, home of the friendly ghost Federici. My dress circle seat in the middle of the third row gave me a magnificent view of the set. The King and I has been revived in Australia by Opera Australia and the Melbourne season stars Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens, tutor to the children of the King, and internationally acclaimed actor Lou Diamond Phillips as the King of Siam (which is now Thailand).
The King and I is based on the Anna and the King, a novel by Margaret Langdon and is loosely based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, an English governess hired to tutor the favoured children of King Mongkut of Siam, including Prince Chulalangkorn. As he was a king that embraced Western culture and style of thought, The King and I showcases how the people of Siam, with some help from Anna, try to emulate Western customs when foreign dignitaries from the West visit so the King is able to suppress circulating rumours suggesting Siam is barbaric. Despite their cultural clashes, Anna and the King ultimately become very close. Meanwhile there is a side story about two young lovers, Tuptim and Lun Tha, but I found their interaction dull.
Before the curtains rose, the scene was set to depict Siam using four actors wearing the robes of monks meditating on stage as incense permeated the atmosphere. When the curtains open, we see Anna and her son arriving by boat as she has been promised a house if she were to teach the King’s children but he only decides to honour his promise much later. The costumes are sumptuous and extravagant, to create an authentic Thai experience as envisioned by British director Christopher Renshaw, with so many sequins and diamantes that they are almost blinding! Despite the misunderstanding of Western concepts at first and their initial shock at her lack of obeisance, the people at court grow to like and love and understand Anna, including the King. In the end, we see Anna’s teaching had a positive influence on the young prince as he changes the way his people show deference.
The highlight of the show is the ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas which had a strong Eastern influence. It is loosely based on the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The emotion displayed by Tup Tim in her narration of this play stood out way more than her chemistry with her lover. My favourite part was however when Anna and the King dances the polka during Shall We Dance. Others scores I enjoyed included I Whistle A Happy Tune when Anna’s son is scared and she shows him how to “make believe to be brave”, Getting to Know You when Anna is in the classroom introducing herself to the King’s children and the powerful delivery of Something Wonderful by the King’s head wife Lu Thiang, played by Shu-Cheen Yu.
Despite being a luxurious extravaganza and the spectacle of paying homage to a time-honoured classic, the production is paced well and accurately rendered. The set for The King and I looks authentic and uses authentic language including Thai phrases, imagery including Buddha, religious references to Thailand and faithful depiction of Thai dance movements. It definitely can take you back a few eras to the Siam of the past!