Shall We dance? Ramon Tikaram as the King of Siam and Josefina Gabrielle as Anna

The King and I

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton

****

IT IS 61 years since the relatively unknown Yul Brynner stepped on to the Broadway stage as King Mongkut of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's new musical The King and I.

A new century and a new production and Singapore born Ramon Tikaram takes over the palace in this lavish, big cast version by Leicester's Curve theatre and he makes a more than decent fist of a role Brynner had all but made his own to the extent that it was a little disconcerting to see Mongkut with hair.

Tikaram might have been king but he, like everyone else, fell under the spell of Josefina Gabrielle as Mrs Anna Leonowens. Gabrelle, incidentally, was a soloist with the National Ballet of Portugal before turning to acting.

She is the perfect, independently minded English, colonial school ma'am.

She glides, rather than flounces, in her splendid hooped dresses – no doubt helped by all that ballet training -  and has a beautiful voice for those Rodgers and Hammerstein big numbers such as Hello, Young Lovers, Shall We Dance and the song, or at least the tune, rescued from the recycling bin on South Pacific, Getting to Know You.

An imperious look from the king

There are some clever touches in the direction by Paul Kerryson and designs by Sara Perks using six giant panels, like the moveable screen walls of oriental  houses, which slide across the front of the stage to  create different views and patterns as well a frame for a very clever shadow show used at the start and end to some considerable effect.

The stage also has a highly glossed floor which not only provides a reflection of the back wall and statues but gives an interesting reflected effect on the backdrop when characters are picked out by spots.

The stage is dominated by two huge, gold statues of Buddha, along with a massive gold throne on a gold dias and even a gold bed – there seems to be a pattern emerging here. The King of Siam obviously had a penchant for gold.

There is also an effective display of hanging blue and gold, what else, paper lanterns which appear from the flies.

All of which give a sumptuous feel to a show based on the 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon which in turn is based on the memoirs of the real Anna who was employed by the King in the 1860s as a governess to educate his children and to help modernise his country.

The musical is set in 1862 and we see the inevitable clash between the autocratic King, whose word is law cannot be questioned, and the stubborn Colonial English widow who stands up for her rights.

Behind the constant conflict though is a growing love with neither of them will admit until the very end when it is too late because essentially The King and I is a love story. It might not be about romance, but it is certainly about love between two very different people from very different cultures.

The two stars manage to create a chemistry on stage which is essential for the musical to work, without it you never see beyond the constant bickering and fighting and the love which binds it all together gests lost in the arguments.

They are given good support by James Hirst as both Captain Orton, whose ship brings Anna to Bangkok, and Sir Edward Ramsey, the diplomat who is persuaded that Mongkut is not a barbarian etc., etc., etc., as the king might say, thanks to sterling work arranging a banquet, ball and party by Anna.

Anna makes a forceful point

Leading the Royal household is chief wife Lady Thiang, played convincingly by Maya Sapone and the tragic lover, Tup-Tim, played by Claire-Marie Hall.

Tup-Tim was a gift from the King of Burma and perhaps the weakest point of the show is the play within a play written by Tup-Tim which is a condemnation of slavery based on Uncle Tom's Cabin, Siam style.

It made its point but somehow lacked the polish and spectacle to give it any wow factor. In 1951 few theatre goers had seen Siamese dance or theatre, or indeed any dance except classical ballet or ballroom. Now we are more sophisticated and with that experience we perhaps expect more.

The children all played their art, two teams of 16, and they managed one of the amusing highlights of the evening when one child asked “What do you do when afraid?” but his accent betrayed him revealing that he came from the Black Country end of Bangkok, King am we and all that.

A mention too for the nine piece band under conductor Julian Kelly who helped make the music, which remember is heading to retirement age, and the production still seem fresh.

Brynner made the role his own but perhaps less well known is the fact that Rex Harrison was the first choice for the role for the opening on Browadway but was not available.  One wonders what our perception of the musical would have been had he been able to take on the role . . . To 31-03-12

Roger Clarke

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