Review: The King and I at Newcastle Theatre Royal
The King and I – Tuesday 23rd May
The multi award-winning Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I returns to the UK, following its critically-acclaimed sold out season at The London Palladium.
Starring the West End’s Annalene Beechey and Broadway’s Darren Lee, The King and I is the greatest musical from the golden age of musicals – with one of the finest scores ever written including Whistle a Happy Tune and Shall We Dance.
This gloriously lavish production is brought to the stage by an internationally renowned creative team under Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher (South Pacific / My Fair Lady / To Kill a Mockingbird) and will feature a world-class company of over 50 West End and Broadway performers and a full-scale orchestra. This is what Newcastle Theatre Royal promised us and I had a feeling that we would certainly not be disappointed.
As a huge fan of an old school musical- thanks to my local amateur dramatics- I have already performed many of the wonderful songs from The King and I in performances over the years. I was beyond excited for the evening to begin and it was so wonderful to feel the buzz from the audience around me. The audience was of a slightly older generation and I thought this was so special that they were able to share in their love for this Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s musical all over again. I love how the King and I is based on the true story of Anna Harriette Leonowens who was a British governess, who worked for King Mongtut of Siam. It has had many Broadway and West End revivals and has won many Tony awards. The musical originally premiered all the way back in 1951 with the musical movie following in 1956. It is so wonderful how it has been able to transcend generations and the songs are still just as wonderful. It certainly did not feel outdated although it is over 70 years old!
As the overture began, I was so impressed with the 14 person team within the orchestra. It felt grand and exciting as the huge snakeskin cloth draped across the stage. They were slightly quiet and I would have preferred a little more sound. I think those in the Upper Circle may have appreciated this too and I did notice at some points throughout the musical some of the singing was a little quiet too. Hopefully the sound levels will improve in the coming week.
We were wondering how they were going to be able to portray the boat – ‘The Chow Phya’- docking in Bangkok on stage and these big company shows never fail to impress me with their innovative staging. Yes, a real life like boat was upon stage for their opening number ‘I Whistle A Happy Tune’ – which was utterly brilliant. Louis who was played by Charlie McGuire, was utterly adorable! He perfectly accompanied his on stage mother – Annalene Beechey particularly during this song. You could really feel a real bond between the pair. We were then introduced to the many chorus members as they stepped foot off of the boat. The chorus made themselves known immediately and had an excellent presence upon the stage. They made the stage feel full and busy with only maybe having around ten of them there.
Next, we were transported to The King’s throne room- I really adored the cast members being part of moving the scenery as this is so impactful. Never an awkward stop and it was seamless. You could see every single element had been thought about here. This was a fairly simple staging and I really hoped that it would get better. It certainly did and throughout the show we saw many clever tricks when creating the different rooms of the palace. The moving pillars and the cascading vines were particularly impressive upon the stage and provided beautiful backdrops for many songs alongside the gigantic Buddha head which descended from the top of the stage. Throughout Act Two however, we were host to some incredibly detailed and impressive stage props. All in perfect keeping with the culture of Siam. Bravo, to all who meticulously planned the scenery out! The design and production team list is huge and this can really be seen in every element of the show.
As we entered the palace we got to meet our wonderfully eccentric King of Siam played by the incredible Darren Lee who has also played this role on the US National Tour. He was every inch the King and embodied him in every way. He connected so deeply with the audience and had everyone eating out of the palm of his hand. Lee truly never missed a beat with his comedic timing and the crowd were often left giggling at him. You could see both the experience and pride Darren Lee has when playing this role. He not only provided the role with humour but also with reverence and believability during some of the darker scenes. His song A Puzzlement was a true musical masterclass on how to deliver- not every note was sung and it didn’t need to be. I think he was wonderful etc etc. (If you get it… you get it!)
This was followed by the wonderful Tuptim who was played by Amelia Kinu Muus. Her songs were beautifully and gently sung and you immediately felt woe for her character, Tuptim, the slave who was in love with another. She looked beyond beautiful on stage and was present alongside being painfully shy. A really difficult role to portray as it doesn’t call for being the biggest, loudest character in the room. A great job done by Amelia who understudied this character well. Her love interest Lyn Tha, was played by Dean John Wilson, a former The Voice and BGT legend. He has also starred as Aladdin on the West End. He is a local lad hailing from Middlesbrough and I adore watching his Tik Tok as he has one of the most powerful and effortless voices I have ever heard. Every time he sings he gives me goosebumps and it comes with such depth and feeling. A huge range allowed him to sing both of his songs with ease. We Kiss in a Shadow and I Have Dreamed although written all those years ago could be in any new musical as a stunning duet. Really well done.
Miss Anna then went onto sing my favourite song in this musical – Hello Young Lovers. This may be a rogue choice but it is just so stunning as she reminisces on her relationship with her late husband. Don’t cry because I’m alone;
All of my memories are happy tonight, I’ve had a love of my own. Such a stunning, meaningful tribute to anyone who has lost someone special to them. Sang so beautifully by Annalene who once again, was clearly ever the professional. She had the most stunning classical musical voice ever and her chilling vibrato shone through in every one of her numbers. You can see music ruins through her veins as she made this look effortless.
We were then greeted with the adorable children of the palace in The March of the Siamese Children. The orchestra played this perfectly and we got to see the personalities of all the children through brilliant choreography. My particular favourites were the naughty Siamese Twins and the youngest girl who cowered around the King’s legs. They were wonderful throughout and followed intricate choreography and staging so well. Their scene in The Schoolroom through Getting to Know You was also so quaint. We also got to see Caleb Lagayan shine as Prince Chulalongkorn as he warms to Miss Anna. He played every inch the spoiled teenager and we see him blossom throughout the show.
Looking around the audience, we could see the excitement of the couple sitting in front of us as Lady Thiang, played by Cezarah Bonner sang Something Wonderful. This song clearly meant a lot to them and the whole crowd gave a huge round of applause at the end of her number. Beautifully performed and she gave this character great resilience and devotion to her husband- The King of Siam. The end of Act One brought us the Finale where they are all praying to Buddha- utterly brilliant and very funny. This has the audience in stitches and the chemistry on stage between Anna and the King was truly wonderful to watch.
This show is not for the faint hearted however, at a mammoth 1 hour 22 minutes for Act One. It did not drag however and it never allowed time to feel bored or deflated. As we entered Act Two – which is 1 hour and 7 minutes, we were greeted with the wives getting ready for the British. Their costumes were brilliant and they had truly wonderful choreography using the hooped skirts throughout Western People Funny.
Act Two held host to one of the longest musical songs ever- The Small House of Uncle Tom performed by Tuptim, The Royal Singers and Dancers. This choreography was truly breathtaking and made to look so effortless. Simple props used throughout- the white sheet being used as rippling waves, the masks and the gong. A huge bravo to the whole Ballet team as I couldn’t take my eyes off of the stage. I also really enjoyed the dances with fans in the first half – so meticulously planned out and paying homage to the traditional dance style. Every element of this show really has been thought out.
The costuming throughout was also spectacular. Intricate details were thought of and the masks were truly exquisite. Not a single detail had been missed on this front and I love how they stuck to the classic costuming – it really paid tribute to the original. The colours used were bright and impactful and really lifted the staging. The comparison between Miss Anna’s traditional hooped skirts and the expensive silk costuming from the Siamese wives was amazing. The use of their costumes through their characters was also fantastic. Kok-Hwa Lie who played Kralahome flourished his robe every time he entered or exited the stage and the material was fit for purpose.
Now a fan favourite which has to be -Shall We Dance?- this warmed everyone’s hearts and it received high acclaim. Once again, stunning vocals and choreography. At the end of the show, no spoilers here, we see the full cast come together and it is truly special to see the wonderful friendship which had been formed between The King of Siam and Miss Anna. A wonderful ending to this wholesome performance.
As the cast came for their curtain call the crowd gave a standing ovation and rightly so!
Tremendous acting, exciting choreography and breathtaking vocals – not a show to be missed! It really was a feast for the eyes. Granted, this kind of musical isn’t for everyone but if it’s precisely your cup of tea grab your tickets now!
Photo Credit: Johan Persson
The King and I plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal Tue 23 – Sat 27 May 2023 playing evenings at 7.30pm and matinees Wed and Thu 2pm and Sat 2.30pm.Tickets can be purchased at www.theatreroyal.co.uk or by calling 0191 232 7010