REVIEW: The King and I (Wales Millennium Centre) ★★★★

After a Tony-Award winning run on Broadway in 2016, and a highly celebrated summer at the London Palladium in 2018, the Lincoln Centre Theatre’s production of The King and I has arrived in Cardiff, as part of its International Tour. This classic American musical written by Rodgers & Hammerstein features hits such as ‘I Whistle A Happy Tune’, ‘Shall We Dance’ & ‘Getting to Know You’, and is one of the most celebrated musicals in theatre history.

The King and I tells the story of Anna, a British school teacher in the 1860’s, who is employed by the King of Siam to teach English to the children of the royal household. The show is based on Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King of Siam (1944) and originally opened on Broadway in 1951 at the St. James Theatre. The show went on to have a successful London run and US tour, and led to the original King of Siam, Yul Bryner winning an Academy Award for the role in the 1956 movie adaptation.

This new touring production is a wonder, and seems to have kept most of Michael Yeargan’s beautiful sets & Catherine Zuber’s breath-taking, Tony-Award winning costumes from the London production. This is all wonderfully accentuated by Donald Holder’s brilliant lighting design.

At the performance I saw, due to the indisposition of Annalene Beechey, the wonderful Maria Coyne played the role of school teacher Anna Leonowens. Maria led the show with ease and grace, and a powerful voice. Most of the audience may not have realised that Maria was the standby as she had great chemistry with the rest of the cast and fit into the role of Anna perfectly. Her King of Siam was American actor Jose Llana. Jose played the King during the Broadway production and toured the US with the show, and it’s not surprising why. He was one of the funniest Kings I’ve seen, and brought a real youth and energy to the show that isn’t often found in that role. It also allowed him to pack an extra punch towards the end of the show, when he has to show his truth strength as King. Maria & Jose’s chemistry together was brilliant, and their triumphant ‘Shall We Dance’ was a real treat.

All the supporting cast were also brilliant. Ethan Le Phong & Jessica Gomes-Ng (also a cover), made the most of their quiet moments throughout the show, as secret lovers Lun Tha & Tuptim. Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang had a stand out moment with a poignant ‘Something Wonderful’ and the children in the show are suitably cheeky and entertaining. The ensemble have a very difficult task in the ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet in Act II, but they perform Christopher Gattelli’s complex choreography, based on Jerome Robbin’s original staging, with ease and skill.

There is something very special about Bartlett Sher’s production of The King and I. Although it starts off slow, it seems to effortlessly flow from scene to scene, truly investing in its characters and, although as spectacular as the production is, it never gets in the way of the storytelling. This, partnered with one of the most luscious Musical scores of all time, equals a night of magical musical theatre.

Reviewed by Oliver Williams
Photo: Johan Persson

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