The King and I (Play)

07/26/2014 at 3:02 PM (Performing Arts, Theatre) (, , , , , )

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!

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Love Never Dies (Play)

07/04/2011 at 2:20 AM (Art, Performing Arts, Theatre) (, , , , , , , )

Love Never Dies, the sequel to the Phantom of the Opera, was a spectacular theatre performance in almost every aspect. Only being staged in a few select locations in the world, I was thrilled to be watching it at the Regent last night. The premiere performance of the show was attended by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. Soon as I saw the magnificent and elaborate set which was complemented by skilful lighting and the Edwardian elegance of the setting, it took my breath away. Luckily my friend had secured some mid row seats which meant we had a fairly good view of the proceedings onstage.

This performance had a darker atmosphere as it was set in a circus in Coney Island, New York – home to freaks, the grotesque, the sinister and the weird. Naturally, such a place being the abode of the disfigured phantom (played by Ben Lewis) made sense. His opening number, the emotion stirring ‘Till I Hear You Sing comes at the very beginning and its haunting melody lingers with you until the very end. We are first introduced to the circus called Mr. Phantasma by three narrators: a dwarf, a strong man and a tall man. They were framed by a large white phantom mask that encompassed the stage and glowed with a red eye. According to the storyline, Christine Daae (played by Anna O’Byrne) is apparently coming to America to conduct a performance for Mr. Hammerstein in order to pay off gambling debts incurred by her husband, Raoul (played by Simon Gleeson). But the mother of the star singer of the circus, Madam Giry (played by Maria Mercedes), who had smuggled the phantom of the opera to Coney Island from Paris knows the impending visit will only threaten the future of her daughter, Meg (played by Sharon Millerchip), the current star of the show who wants the attention of the phantom, the owner of the circus.

When Christine and Raoul visit New York, they are accompanied by her ten-year-old son called Gustave (played by Kurtis Papadinis). He displays an astonishing talent with the composition of music and while he tries to get his father interested in his playing, Raoul shows no inclination or interest in his ability with the piano. He asks his mother if his father does not love him and she responds with a song asking him to see the love with his heart. Then after Raoul is summoned to conduct a business transaction with Mr. Hammerstein, the phantom visits Christine and then asks her to sing a song composed by him instead. This is when the phantom meets Gustave and is introduced by his mother as an old friend. It is only when the phantom hears the boy play the piano, he realises the boy has talents with striking resemblance to his own. Then he takes the boy to a place like another world where the song changes pace as it becomes a rock song called The Beauty Underneath which was a highlight, glass pyramid like rotating structures carrying mythic creatures inside spun on stage and the lights pulse in a bright orange glow.

Love Never Dies

But it was too early to reveal the truth about his face to young Gustave, who recoils in horror. Meanwhile feeling ignored and unwanted, Raoul spends time getting drunk at the bar. In his drunken stupor, he takes on a challenge proposed by the phantom. If Christine does not sing, Raoul will be free to leave with her and all his debts repaid but if she chose to sing, it would mean Christine had selected the phantom instead. This disappointed me because it made the phantom into a villain, Christine into a deceptive wife and Raoul into an ill-used man who had been burdened with bringing up the son of another man. This interpretation is not perhaps the expected one.

Unfortunately, Christine chose to sing, Raoul left her and she was reunited with phantom briefly until Meg’s jealous rage stepped in and she ran off with Gustave. When Meg finally had the attention of the phantom as she was on the brink of suicide, she tried to perform Bathing Beauty – which was a cheeky but cute number prior to the song by Christine. But the phantom as he tried to stop her made the mistake of telling her that not everyone was like Christine. Meg sets off the gun and the consequences ensure there would be no possibility of a sequel unless it was to be about Gustave. As she lies dying, his mother tells him the truth about his real father but he is at first hesitant to accept the fact. After he runs off to bring back Raoul, the phantom steps away to the side but the finale of the show is when Gustave gets brave enough to see the phantom without the mask.

Since this story is different in its characterisation to the original by French author Gaston Leroux, while I was definitely surprised at the tragic ending, it pleased me the scheming machinations of the phantom ultimately got rid of the trouble-causing woman. Despite the storyline not living up to that of its predecessor, it is worthy of Broadway just for the visual design of the set and the theatricality of the deeply hued costumes.

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Cirque Du Soleil – Saltimbanco

05/29/2011 at 8:26 AM (Circus, Performing Arts) (, , , , , , , , )

So I went to see a performance of Saltimbanco by Cirque Du Soleil last night. It was held at Rod Laver Arena, a sure sign of a large audience. We were in seats that were upstairs and the extra seating added downstairs made the stage seem quite small.  We started to watch the show without the assistance of a program so it seemed very abstract when the performers communicated in high-pitched squeaks, giggles and relied heavily on body language. The people in the more expensive floor seating were given more interaction with the performers with some being driven off their seats while the performers sat in them or when one member of the audience was separated from his shirt. Saltimbanco is based on traditional circus acts involving humans so what we mostly get is clowns, mimes, acrobats and trapeze artists. This is not the show you want to see if you prefer a narrative.

The bodysuit costumes worn by the performers in an array of different colours made them look like chameleons in my opinion apart from a couple with a fan robes that looked like birds.  They did look a little bit like Teletubbies crossed with leprechauns.  The synchronized dance choreography was quite spectacular as they moved in rhythm with the catchy beats. My favourite part of the show prior to the intermission was the Chinese Pole act. Several acrobats climbed up four poles on stage and performed jaw dropping, synchronized routines with amazing precision. Several times the acrobats dropped into free fall down the poles, heads hanging upside down but stopped just short of banging their heads on the floor. Then they swung off and joined the rest of the cast dancing around them. This should have been the opening or the finale though – not a midway act.

Then we are introduced to the clown again who treats us to some  jokes involving noises. Patrons in floor seating are urged to join in. In one instance, the clown pretend swallows a ball and then we are treated to the prospect of him digesting it and what happens afterwards. I really was not a fan of the clown – too many fart gags. The bicycle act was in better taste with an acrobat riding it backwards and forwards and performing somersaults and hand stands on it while it moved.  It was breathtaking to watch.  Then next was a performance with some boleadoras where two performers were using them in a tandem tap dance. It was a cool sight but not up to par as what came in the second half of the show involving the trapeze acts.

After the intermission, we were treated to the skills of a juggler mounted on a set of mini stairs. He stepped up and down these while his juggling balls stayed in motion in the air. Then there was a solo trapeze act set to some melancholy music and it was amazing to see all the somersaults and backflips defying gravity executed. There was not even a safety net underneath! The Russian swing was another highlight where performers jettisoned off it to form a human ladder and then tumbled on to a mat. In addition, male twins playing the role of strong men created human sculptures as they lifted each other, sometimes balanced with only one arm, and posed in positions likely to give an ordinary person muscle sprains while another duo trapeze act took place above.

The clown then involved another patron in a mimicked gun duel and had him follow a lot of poses instructed to him that we even thought he might be a plant except for the fact he didn’t know the steps. To signal the end of the show, four trapeze artists climbed up to the highest point on the arena stage and faced each other. Then after being attached to harnesses like bungee jumping cords, they jump, flip in the air and link their hands. This sequence is repeated several times in time with the music. The timing by these acrobats is so precise which means they avoid things that look like close calls. But then that is probably why they belong in the big leagues as performers with Cirque Du Soleil.

Note: The performers in the videos may not be the performers on tour.

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