John Frost’s Tony Award winning production of The King and I premiered in Adelaide, Australia in 1991 starring Hayley Mills. Twenty three years later, with successful transfers to Broadway and the West End thrown in, the original creative and design team were reunited to re-create the magic of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic in a revival co-produced by Frost and Opera Australia.
Upon entering the QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, audience members entered another world as a 4D spectacular delighted the senses. A gorgeously detailed exotic set (designed by Brian Thomson) and a strong smell of incense in the air (as monks sat meditating on either side of the proscenium arch) was striking and memorable, before the orchestra played a note.
Opulent and fit for a king, Thomson’s lavish set created incredible depth in shades of red and gold, with 61,000 Swarovski crystals and layers of transparent scarf-like curtains draped at every turn; the usually drab black curtain wings were replaced with huge ornamented elephant designs I suspect there will be more awards to come for this incredible design and functionality. The elaborate costumes (designed by Roger Kirk) were also magnificent, with one sixth of the $6 million budget spent on costuming alone. However audience members in the front rows of the stalls were faced with some slightly distracting costuming (or lack thereof) when Burmese slave girl Tuptim made her entrance.
Lisa McCune is perfectly cast as the widowed school teacher, Anna Leonowens, and plays the role with aplomb. A Rodgers and Hammerstein veteran with acclaimed performances in The Sound of Music and South Pacific already under her belt, McCune certainly makes it look easy. But to balance Anna’s determination with a dash of cheekiness, all the while still maintaining the airs of an elegant 1860s lady, is no mean feat and should be commended. Despite her diminutive stature, she equally matches the stage presence of Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam (her rendition of ‘Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?’ was both strong and cheeky), and the pair already comfortable onstage together as leading players easily fell into the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein shtick like a comfy pair of pyjamas. Rhodes, who played a more vulnerable, even comedic side of the King than often seen, gave a strong performance, and even though McCune’s voice is light compared to Rhodes rich booming baritone, its delicate quality suited her role. Conversely, while Tahu Rhodes’ strength was his voice, I would have liked to have seen even more strength come through in the character choice for the King.
Magnificent in the supporting role of Lady Thiang (the King’s head wife), Shu-Cheen Yu’s beautiful operatic voice soared in her heartfelt aria ‘Something Wonderful’ and Marty Rhone delighted in the role of The Kralahome (Prime Minister) – underplayed humour was the key to this performance and Rhone delivered.
The young Burmese lovers Tuptim (Jenny Liu) and Lun Tha (Adrian Li Donni) were also well suited to their roles. Li Donni is no stranger to Lun Tha, having performed the role both in Australia (The Production Company) and internationally – his beautiful voice and boyish looks easily charms the audience.
Adding to the overall charm of the production are the twenty-seven children (13 in each onstage cast and one understudy) who play the Royal Siamese Children and Anna’s young son Louis. The ‘March of the Siamese Children’ when the Royal Princes and Princesses were presented to Anna was nothing short of adorable.
The play-within-a-play component – ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ – was the best I have seen and the Siamese inspired choreography (Susan Kikuchi recreating Jerome Robbins’ original ballet) was delightfully playful and exotic.
Having seen the production several times in various forms, there were no real surprises with the storyline, but what was surprising was how funny the show is. Director Chris Renshaw has done a fantastic job in extracting every comedic moment, as well as balancing the pathos of the serious issues beneath: there were a few teary moments as well.
Mention also needs to go to Musical Director Peter Casey, and the orchestra for a faultless performance. The King and I is a highly polished, lavish and opulent revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical.
This is a world-class family show with stunning costumes and exotic sets that is funny, with a heartfelt story beneath. The King and I will play for a limited season in QPAC’s Lyric Theatre until 1 June 2014.