The King and I was first performed on Broadway in March 1951 and has been playing somewhere ever since. It’s based on what for years was thought to be the true story of an English widow, Anna Leonowens, who goes to Siam (now Thailand) to be the governess to the many children of King Mongkut. However it seems Leonowens was a bit of a fabricator and made up a lot of her life although she did go to Siam to teach the children and possibly had a romantic liaison with the King.
The show was written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and it has now been retitled “Rogers & Hammerstein’s The King and I” (possibly for copyright reasons). It starts when Anna and her young son Louis arrive by boat from Singapore to take up her post. She then meets the autocratic King and his many wives and concubines and his sixty-seven children (although in this production it’s more like eight). She has to deal with not only the clash in cultures but also her relationship with the high-handed and overbearing monarch which of course she does before (spoiler alert) he dies!
The show has had many productions since 1951 and the one that is currently at the Dominion Theatre for a short run, originated at the Lincoln Centre in New York, directed by esteemed Broadway director Bartlett Sheer and was first performed in the UK at the London Palladium in 2018 before going on tour and now arriving at the Dominion. As is to be expected from a Broadway show, it’s a massive production with a cast of over thirty and an orchestra of thirteen. Anna is played by Helen George who has a delightful voice and slightly haughty way of carrying herself as befits a Victorian governess. Darren Lee prowls about the stage with tremendous presence – in his character’s own words a ”barbarian” who wants to become more refined. The other standout is Cazarah Bonner as Lady Thiang who has a wonderful operatic tone to her voice.
The production is epic in scale and Catherin Zuber’s costumes are sumptuous as befits the royal court of Siam. However Michael Yeargan’s set design is a bit of a disappointment. The show opens with Anna arriving by steamboat which got a gasp from the audience and a round of applause all to itself! However the rest of the sets are a let-down and at times resembled something (with all due respect) from a regional production of Aladdin! The pacing is slow and a bit ponderous which makes for a long night (three hours including the interval) – it’s just a bit dull at times.
There are of course some wonderful songs such as “Hello Young Lovers”, “Getting To Know You” and “Shall We Dance” and it’s always wonderful to hear them sung backed by a full orchestra. But as good as the songs are, you can’t get away from the fact this is a bit of a clunky, old-fashioned musical with themes that may have been acceptable in 1951 but are a little dated now. It’s a view of the Far East seen through the prism of Western eyes at the time but things have moved on. Over the past few years, two other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, Oklahoma! and Carousel have been reimagined and brought into the 21st century. I think it’s possibly time for someone to do the same with The King and I although judging by the positive reaction of the audience last night, it might be best to leave well alone.
Review by Alan Fitter
It first opened on Broadway over 65 years ago. After two years it came to London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Two years after that, it was made into a film with original stage actor Yul Brynner and Scottish sweetheart Deborah Kerr. Now, The King And I is back again.
Featuring such well-known songs as “Getting To Know You” and “Shall We Dance?”, The King And I tells of the initially uneasy relationship between the King of Siam and his newly appointed governess, Anna. Despite wanting to show a progressive stance and forge a connection between East and West, the King is thrown by Anna’s candidness and blunt attitude. Eventually, they strike up a strong friendship that lasts the rest of their lives.
Booking to March 2nd, 2024