The King and I is set in the 1860s and tells the tale of British schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens (Helen George), who is hired by the King of Siam (Darren Lee) to educate his many children and wives. There, she clashes with the stubborn and traditional monarch but they both eventually come to understand and appreciate their cultural differences, leading to a deep and complicated friendship.
The performances in this revival are impressive. George shines as Anna: she brings a fierce intelligence and compassion to the role, playing off of the King’s stubbornness with wit and grace. Lee is equally as impressive. His voice is rich and powerful, and he imbues the character with a surprising vulnerability and charm. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable, and they bring a new depth and complexity to their characters.
One of the most striking aspects though is the stunning set, designed by Michael Yeargan. With intricate details and vibrant colours, the stage magically transports the audience to the opulent world of the King’s palace. During ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’ performed by Tuptim (Marienella Phillips) and Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson), beautiful mauve flowers hang from the ceiling, framing the stage and enhancing the romantic quality of the scene.
Another standout feature is the music. The King and I has always been known for its beautiful, memorable score, but seeing it performed live is truly remarkable. The classic songs are given new life by the talented cast, who deliver pitch-perfect performances that leave the audience humming the tunes long after the show has ended. It is visibly clear how much fun George and Lee are having performing Shall We Dance?’ and their joy is infectious. Additionally, the royal children in ‘Getting to Know You’ are fantastic, receiving a collective ‘awww’ from the audience every time they come on stage.
But what really sets this production apart is the choreography. Christopher Gattelli‘s dance numbers are spectacular, with a blend of traditional Thai movement and modern dance that is simply hypnotic. The ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ sequence in particular is a show-stopper, with intricate formations and fluid movements that are both beautiful and emotional.
Of course, The King and I is not without its flaws. The show’s depiction of the King and his people has been criticized for perpetuating harmful stereotypes and exoticizing Asian culture. While this production does make some efforts to address these issues, it still feels somewhat dated in its portrayal of Siamese culture. Moreover, the sexism and bigotry are rife throughout. To say it’s “of its time” is an understatement.
As with any work of art, it’s important to view The King and I through a critical lens, acknowledging both its strengths and weaknesses. While the show may not be perfect, it remains a powerful and influential piece of musical theatre that continues to captivate audiences nearly 70 years after its debut.
This 2023 revival is impressive. The talented cast, stunning set design, and unforgettable music all came together to create a production that is both exciting and memorable.
Book by: Rodgers and Hammerstein
Directed by: Bartlett Sher
Choreography by: Christopher Gattelli
Costume design by: Catherine Zuber
Set design by: Michael Yeargan
The King and I tours the UK until 1 July 2023. Further information and tour dates can be found here.