The King and I musical comes to Birmingham in a production that continues to dance with dated and contentious themes.

The Rogers and Hammerstein musical is currently playing at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham.

The show first premiered on Broadway in 1951 and spawned an Oscar-winning Hollywood cinemascope film starring Yul Brynner as the King of Siam with Deborah Kerr as the English governess who is employed by the King to tutor his children.

The costume design by Catherine Zuber is impeccableHandout
The costume design by Catherine Zuber is impeccable

The stage and film versions of the King and I continue to fascinate audiences with dazzling music and dancing, and plans are afoot in Hollywood to remake the iconic film – with major changes to tie in with modern sensibilities – and keep the musical legacy alive for a new generation.

The plot of the musical – set in the 1860’s – is partly inspired by a book by Anglo-Indian schoolteacher Anna Leonowens who is offered a job by King Mongkut of Siam to teach English to his vast harem of concubines and their children.

A clash of culture ensures and battle lines are drawn between the Victorian-minded Anna and the stubborn and authoritarian King Mongkut.

Eastern and Western philosophies and concepts are contested and contrasted between the two opposing individuals who embark on a journey of discovery which leads to compromise, change, friendship, and an understanding of sorts despite the chasm that at times threatens to divide and tear them apart.

Anna arrives at the royal court in Siam to teach King Mongkut's childrenHandout
Anna arrives at the royal court in Siam to teach King Mongkut’s children

This touring show of the legendary musical arrives with a major casting coup – Helen George, from the BBC’s Sunday night jewel in the crown show Call the Midwife which has been running successfully for over a decade.

However, George was sadly missing from last night’s show at The Alexandra Theatre and she was also unfortunately absent from tonight’s press night.

George’s understudy, Maria Coyne, took on the role of Anna and she was absolutely magnificent in a performance that requires acting, singing, and dancing skills.

The vast and voluminous Victorian costume worn by Coyne requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina in a show that runs for almost three hours and Coyne rose to the challenge with real zest and passion. Based on the quality of her performance in this show Coyne is a star in the making.

Darren Lee as King Mongkut enjoys amazing chemistry with Coyne, and despite the gruffness inherent in the role he’s playing, Lee has a bright charm – and a naughty wit – that seduces the audience.

Both Lee and Coyne display beautiful vocal magic that seems tailor made for the lush and romantic music which is performed with a live orchestra.

The production failed to address some of the misogyny and bigotry which weigh down the showHandout
The production failed to address some of the misogyny and bigotry which weigh down the show

On the matter of charm, the royal children are so mesmerising and cute that whenever they appear on stage the audience immediately gush with an audible ‘awww’ that cascades all over the auditorium.

Michael Yeargan’s colourful set designs are totally in tune with the landscape in which the show unfolds. The lighting, costumes (by Catherine Zuber) and staging bring alive the scintillating royal court in a spectacular and flamboyant manner.

Christopher Gattelli’s throbbing choreography showcases the world of traditional Thai dance, which is both soulful and fiery, and contrasts that with carefully orchestrated Victorian steps, fusing one into the other as the story moves ahead at full steam.

Bartlett Sher’s direction in Act 1 is flawless and his pacing keeps the story bubbling along with tension and romance but Sher’s tight rein falters in Act 2 as the opening dance number lingers on for far too long and ultimately ends up sabotaging and slowing down the drama. The balance is lost and the audience attention and engagement levels dropped noticeably during these moments.

The musical's troubled cultural and political prejudices are not addressed in this productionHandout
The musical’s troubled cultural and political prejudices are not addressed in this production

Another troubling aspect which Sher fails to address effectively in the show are the political, cultural, racial and gender issues that plague this musical. The chauvinistic and blinkered treatment of women and children – especially daughters – was unpalatable and questionable.

When film studio Paramount announced that a remake of the 1956 movie (which remains banned in Thailand) was in the pipeline concerns were raised about how the new film would deal with the musical’s imperialistic and dated themes in the 21st century. The original film was produced after World War II when Hollywood presented a world view of the West as a place of enlightenment and civilisation while the East was judged as dark, exotic, primitive, merciless and barbaric.

This superiority complex aspect remains in Sher’s production which continues to push the same distorted cultural and political narratives which portrays the East as inferior and backward.

Sher shies away from dealing with the misogyny, bigotry and colonial prejudices that cast a dark and heavy shadow in a show that could have been tweaked and adapted into a sparkling and refreshing production for a new age. The objectionable Orientalism in this provocative musical from another era could have been addressed while still retaining the charm and magic that ripples and flows through the music.

Anna and the King share an incredible energy and that energy is the heart and soul of the show. Their journey of love is the a beacon of hope and unity in an increasingly divided world. If that aspect of the show is highlighted and celebrated over the intolerance and discriminatory themes then this musical will stay alive and relevant, and continue to dance for years to come.

VERDICT★ ☆ ☆ ☆☆


The King and I is now running at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday 4 March 

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