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REVIEW: The King And I at Sunderland Empire

The King And I
Sunderland Empire
Until Saturday 15th June 2019

The Rogers & Hammerstein’s musical, about how the King of Siam hired a British school teacher in order to bring a western education to his family, arrives in Sunderland for a two week run. Filled with classic memorable songs sung beautifully by a talented cast, and a sumptuous production, this musical is a real treat.

It interesting that members of the audience were describing their relationship with the production as they took their seats. A few had seen the original production and/or the original film at the cinema. A few had not seen it before in any form but many had seen the film at Christmas or on a wet Saturday afternoon on BBC2. This means the show had a lot to live up to. By the interval it was clear the show had surpassed the expectation of those around us. The show flew by, even with its nearly three-hour running time.

I’ll assume that you’ve not seen the movie and describe the plot by quoting the director Bartlett Sher from their programme notes: “At the heart of the King and I is a struggle between traditional and modernity brought to the kingdom by the strong forces of imperialism and industrialization. At the time of our play, the King and his country of Siam are besieged – French forces and the British East India Company had already began to colonize Siam’s biggest foes: the British-occupied Singapore, Penang, portions of the Malay Peninsula, and over half of Burma. The French had aggressively laid claim to parts of Vietnam and Cambodia. This puts the King under enormous stress to change very quickly in order to protect his country and his people.  He has to reconnect himself with the west and to assimilate to the modern world without becoming colonised and without forsaking the traditional values he holds most dear.”

The King in question, Mongut (Jose Llana), had studied English, Latin and astronomy and hence he saw fit to try to appoint a British school teacher to educate his many offspring. The show begins as Anna Leonowens (Annalene Beechey) arrives in Bangkok on a boat. She is accompanied by her son Louis (played at our show by Lewis Fernée). To calm his nerves about what may lie ahead they sing the opening song I whistle a happy tune which quickly established the high standard for singing in this production. In addition, unlike some other recent UK tours that have arrived in our region, the sound was spot on.  The music was backed by a wonderful orchestra, under conductor Malcolm Forbes-Peckham, that included, for example, a harp, piccolo, cor anglais e tc etc. I flag this up as it led to a far superior accompaniment than would be achieved by either a backing tape or a group of keyboard players.

Anna and Louis are met by the King’s prime minister, the Kralahome (Kok-Hwa Lie) and get a quick lesson in Siam tradition before heading to the palace to meet the King and his large family. It is clear that Anna is not getting the deal that she expected as she will be living in the palace rather than the promised separate house.  The selective memory of the King features across the piece.

Once at the palace, the audience get to meet the delightful children, who are often funny too, and see more of the wonderful costumes that are another feature of this lavish production. 

There were no weak spots with the music in this show. Kamm Kunaree delighted with her rendition of My Lord And Master. She was joined by Kavin Panmeechao during We Kiss In A Shadow and I Have Dreamed. Cezarah Bonner moved us with Something Wonderful.  That said, the show stealing performances, both solo and in duet, by Annalene Beechey and Jose Llana that will stick in the memory. Throw in the choreography (Christopher Gattelli) during Shall We Dance? and the audience burst into spontaneous applause. This show is a real treat.

The ensemble, including the delightful royal children, help hold this long show together. They get their choice to shine during their theatre performance in the second act.

This show is about a King in the 1860s trying to keep his traditions. Such traditions and attitudes will not marry well with the post #metoo 2019 sensibilities. This is a historic show and it is based upon a real engagement of a 19th century King and a school teacher. Whilst Mogut’s attitudes to women, punishment and slaves is shocking today, he is does soften as the show progresses. Indeed, many in the audience will overlook his misogyny and feel sympathetic to his causes at the end.

This show has no mega-mix to get everyone on their feet at the end so it felt like a genuine, and well deserved, standing ovation at the conclusion. Yes, I too was on my feet! This is a revival that is worth catching.

Review: Stephen Oliver

The King And I is at Sunderland Empire from 5 - 15 June 2019 Tickets are available from the theatre box office and online from our affiliates ATG Tickets: #Ad

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