Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor

New Heir To The King And I Throne!

Yul Brynner became so synonymous with the principal role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, that it takes a quantum shift – or the passing of enough time – to make the public realise that a new monarch has succeeded to the throne of Siam!

Jose Llana – complete with a full head of hair - dominated the stage at Leeds Grand Theatre last night as Bartlett Sher’s Broadway / West End production opened to a packed house.

There were many musical diehards in the audience keen, no doubt, to see what all the fuss was about following hugely successful runs in both London and New York, of the Lincoln Center Theatre’s production.

And they were not to be disappointed. Despite a curtain down of 10.25pm, this was a show that kept you mesmerised throughout and is probably one of the most exotic, colour,ful sumptuous productions that you will see between now and your entry to the gates of Heaven, or alternative destinations!

It tells the story of Anna Leonowens who arrives in Siam from Singapore to take up her appointment as teacher / governess to the King’s children and wives and, in true Rodgers and Hammerstein style, embraces a clutch of iconic songs from I Whistle a Happy Tune, A Puzzlement and, of course, Shall We Dance.

For long enough this has been regarded as a ‘beautiful’ show with lots of niceties from costumes to balletic choreography and music, however, it is only with the passing of time and some close listening, that you realise how much deeper The King and I actually goes.

Set in 1862 when Imperialistic Europe was at its strongest, Burma, Singapore and places like Siam – modern day Thailand – were greedily eyed as golden prizes by the likes of France, Britain and other ambitious powers eager to expand their empires.

However, the likes of Siam walked a fine line. Did they ally themselves to one of the great European dynasties and, in doing so, probably lose their wealth and autonomy, or did they go it alone and run the risk of political isolation?

Rodgers and Hammerstein knew only too well the challenges of racism, something they had already referenced in South Pacific – ‘You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught’ (to be racist) – and there were bound to be some cringeworthy moments from this show, originally penned in 1951…..and there were.

But it was a period production and of its time – highlighting the struggle between tradition and modernity - and, despite moments which appeared to mock a rich culture that probably believed its country to be the biggest in the world, this did nothing to detract from the sheer scale and theatrical beauty of the Lincoln Center show in which the exceptionally (Julie) Andrewsesque, Annalene Beechey triumphed as ‘Anna’, alongside a host of wonderful cameo actors, each of whom played their parts to a fault.

Jerome Robbins was the choreographer behind the original Act II ballet, which is brilliant but, at the same time, overly long and perhaps the main culprit for the very long running time.

Aaron Teoh as heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn, was beautifully arrogant, eventually holding Anna’s hands to his forehead as a mark of his deferential respect, whilst Paulina Yeung and Ethan Le Phong as Tuptim and Lun Tha were the perfect love interest.

It is the first time I have seen The King and I for a long time but this is a production that will stay in my mind for many years to come and that, surely, is one of the hallmarks of something brilliant, something that leaves a lasting impression?

This is most definitely one of the ‘must see’ shows in Yorkshire even if the comment from one young lady departing the theatre gives you momentary doubts: “It were gud, but just too soppy for me wi’ all that romantic stuff.” Tell that to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!

The King and I
Leeds Grand Theatre
Until Saturday 9th November