Daniel Dae Kim, Maria Friedman, Jee Hyun Lim, Ethan Le Phong, Yanle Zhong, David Yip, Michael Simkins, Stephen Scott, Mischa Goodman, Hugo Yamaguchi, Miwa Saeki, Aiko Kato, Karen Cadogan, Victoria Sahakian Rogers, Adam Wong, Azumi Ono
With performances of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 classic The King and I being so common – the show being a particular favourite with amateur groups – any production wishing to stand out from the rest requires a unique selling point.
Jeremy Sams’ production at the Royal Albert Hall is being sold on its scale, its bigness, and the fact that it is ‘fully staged in-the-round’
It is therefore ironic that its real strength lies not in the staging at all, but rather in its host of superb principal performances.
The King and I sees the archetypal nineteenth century English lady, Anna Leonowens, come to Siam in the 1860s to teach the King’s children, and subsequently collide with the King in a clash of values and cultures.
Though the portrayal of the English as ‘civilisers’ could make this piece feel distastefully imperialistic, in reality the issues raised are far more universal. We can relate today to the dilemmas that First World countries face when helping other nations to learn, progress and advance, whilst not disrespecting their cultures and traditions.
The rapport between Maria Friedman’s Anna and Daniel Dae Kim’s King of Siam is remarkable as they become involved in a cat and mouse game, both attempting to assert their own values and authority, whilst ensuring that doing so does not backfire on them. Friedman captures Anna’s plucky and politely assertive spirit, inwardly outraged when her values are challenged, but not entirely lacking in humour. Dae Kim (best known for playing Jin in Lost) successfully portrays the uncertainty felt by a man who is keen to modernise his country but fearful of the consequences of doing so. Nevertheless, though he is all too quick to fall back on the ‘divine right of kings’ when things go against him, we can still appreciate that he is ultimately an humanitarian rather than a barbarian.
These two are ably supported by Yanle Zhong as a highly assertive Tuptim (introduced as a gift to the King from Burma), and Ethen Le Phong, as her lover, Lun Tha. Their beautiful duet, We Kiss in a Shadow, is a vocal highpoint of the evening, as is Jee Hyun Lim’s performance of Something Wonderful as she plays Lady Thiang, the King’s first wife.
In comparison with these splendid performances, the staging is something of a disappointment. Robert Jones’s set may be attractive, turning the Albert Hall’s arena into the King’s sumptuous palace, surrounded by water, boats and bridges, but it is so huge that it ends up swamping the performers. Friedman and Dae Kim succeed in filling it when they perform Shall We Dance, and the setting helps us to see the King as an isolated individual in his solo, A Puzzlement, but elsewhere it becomes difficult to lose oneself in the action when what should be the focal point for the audience’s attention is so overwhelmed by its surroundings. This problem is particularly acute in the opening scene (the only one not to take place in the King’s palace) when the stage is so cluttered that Anna’s I Whistle a Happy Tune has virtually no impact.
The stage, however, does present a suitably large space for ensemble dancing and if the children’s number Getting to Know You never really gets going, this is far from true of Act Two’s ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas. Featuring exquisite costumes, some wonderful choreography by Susan Kikuchi, and (later on) a dragon made up of orange sheets and umbrellas, the visual effects certainly take off in the second half.
So overall, though not without its moments of optical magic, it is ultimately the performances rather than the lavishness of the staging that prevail in this production.