Review: The King and I. Milton Keynes Theatre

The King & I
Milton Keynes Theatre
7th November 2023

Composing icons Rodgers & Hammerstein revolutionised musical theatre back in the 1940s, when they changed he landscape of the genre forever. Until their arrival, shows were largely stitched together from pre-existing songs and connected loosely by thin plots, but Rodgers & Hammerstein’s pioneering approach saw them creating musicals where the songs and story were actually written specifically for the show, actually driving the narrative from the point of the characters. This approach began with ‘Oklahoma’ and redefined musicals as we know them, and saw the duo reaping critical and financial success. After a slew of hits, the team brought us ‘The King & I’, seeing them adapt Margaret Landon’s novel ‘Anna and The King Of Siam’ into a stage musical. It’s been an audience favourite throughout its 70+ year lifespan, and is back again, as the Bartlett Sher-directed Lincoln Center production tours the country into next year.

Playing at Milton Keynes Theatre this week, the musical sees British governess Anna Leonowens (played by Annelene Beechey) hired to teach the children of the King of Siam (Darren Lee). Upon arrival, Anna learns that that King hasn’t honoured some of the key stipulations of their agreement, putting the pair into immediate conflict. Anna is aggrieved by the King’s domineering and condescending attitude towards others, particularly women, which seems to be accepted by all of those around him, including his chief wife Lady Thiang (Cezarah Bonner) and his numerous junior wives, among them Tuptim (Marienella Phillips), who is secretly in love with Burmese scholar Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson). Anna does her best to instil honest respectful values in the King’s children, which slowly start to rub off on the King himself as the pair spend more time together, but he remains ever aware of his royal and political power and fear of being seen as vulnerable by the wider world, which threatens to drive Anna away forever.

‘The King & I’ is one of the biggest “golden era musicals, orchestrally glorious, extravagant to look at, and having a strong female lead who challenges a pompous overbearing man is always a good thing. It remains one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s richest scores, the melodies of which still sound fabulous, and contains more wry playful humour than it gets credit for. On the flip side, it’s very much a product of its time, when pace was far more leisurely and attention spans must’ve been significantly longer, as it runs at a mammoth 3 hours and takes its time to make its points. There’s an interesting discussion to be had around the treatment of classics such as this one, should they be preserved as they are as moments of theatre history frozen in time, or should they be reimagined for the mindsets of more modern audiences. Looked at objectively, it could certainly do with some trimming of its book scenes, spending an inordinate amount of time on the interaction between Anna and The King where it could develop peripheral characters instead to make it a more rounded experience. Also the Act 2 ballet “The Small House Of Uncle Thomas” brings the plot to a grinding halt for a good 15 minutes, again an inclusion common of its period, and beautifully performed, but could be trimmed down with no detriment to the narrative.

It’s certainly a stunning production to look at, with sumptuous set design (Michael Yeargan), costumes (Catherine Zuber), choreography (Christopher Gattelli) and lighting (Donald Holder), which radiate with the beauty of Far Eastern culture and transport the audience to a land far far away from a wet and cold Milton Keynes. Some recent tours have felt a tad “watered down” in terms of production values of late, but that’s certainly not the case here. The orchestra also bring that soaring score to life wonderfully, rivaling some West End shows in terms of size and range of instruments. Overall it’s a feast for the senses fit for a King, even if it does drag its feet at times.

Anna is one of the great leading roles for women in musical theatre, and Annalene Beechey does a fine job, driven and assertive in the face of the King’s condescension, and has the audience firmly on her side from the outset. Her wonderful soprano voice sounds glorious in her solo numbers, both in the quieter and bigger moments, and her mix of goodness and strength is a joy to watch. Darren Lee is also excellent, making a more playful King than some other portrayals, and walks the line between petulant child and aggressive leader brilliantly. He shares a great chemistry with Beechey which is vital to this show, and they make a winning pair. Cezarah Bonner makes a charismatic and elegant Lady Thiang, beautifully regal in her poise and delivery, and performs “Something Wonderful”….well, wonderfully. As secret lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, Marienella Phillips and Dean John-Wilson are somewhat less successful, lacking any real sense of romantic chemistry, and John-Wilson in particular being vocally underpowered.

This is a great chance to see a true classic, and ‘The King & I’ still holds enough regal glory and power to make it worthy of its reputation. Some great leading performances and beautiful visuals provide some enjoyable (if overlong) Eastern escapism.

‘The King & I’ runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 11th November 2023, before continuing its UK tour into 2024.
Performance runtime 3 hours including interval.

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