• Lisa McCune (Anna Leonowens) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (King of Siam). Photo: Brian Geach.
    Lisa McCune (Anna Leonowens) and Teddy Tahu Rhodes (King of Siam). Photo: Brian Geach.
  • Leah Lim (Topsy) and ensemble.  Photo: Brian Geach.
    Leah Lim (Topsy) and ensemble. Photo: Brian Geach.
  • Lisa McCune and ensemble.  Photo: Brian Geach.
    Lisa McCune and ensemble. Photo: Brian Geach.

The King and I -
The Lyric Theatre, QPAC, 19 April -

This multi-million dollar production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is, in all respects, extraordinarily lavish. Co-produced by Opera Australia and John Frost, reviving his 1991 award-winning production, it is more spectacular “than any production of The King and I ever”, according to Frost. Certainly it is a feast for all the senses, including smell, as before the house curtain of vibrant red, ornately decorated sliding screens even opens, the burning of incense by ‘Buddhist monks’ is already evoking the exotic.

The book by Margaret Landon on which the 1951 musical was based, is itself from the considerably embellished diaries of Anna Leonowens, the Anglo-Indian governess to the Royal Court of Siam in the 1860s. Therefore, the somewhat spurious drama mainly concerns the culture clash of the imperialist Victorian values of the British Empire, represented by Anna (Lisa McCune), with the supposedly autocratic rule of Siam's King Mongkut (Teddy Tahu Rhodes).

It is a battle of wills that was played out with considerable wit and a certain amount of pathos by McCune and Tahu Rhodes, who were reprising a professional partnership forged in Opera Australia’s South Pacific. The chemistry between the two was palpable, both delivering performances that anchored the work with impeccable delivery and immaculate timing. McCune was the quintessential English governess; accent near perfect and voice sweet and clear.

Tahu Rhodes admitted in an interview that he couldn’t hope to match Yul Brynner – considered the definitive King of Siam – but he does better, making the role his own. It was an impressive portrayal; finely nuanced, showing both the character’s stubbornness and vulnerability. And he has what Brynner never had - that glorious baritone voice.

The supporting cast was equally impressive: Marty Rhone as The Kralahome and Shu-Cheen Yu as Lady Thiang gave convincing performances as guardians of the Royal Court’s status quo; Jenny Liu as the doomed concubine Tuptim and Adrian Li Donni as her lover Lun Tha provided the gravitas and pathos of the story. Ten-year-old Riley Brooker as Anna’s son, Louis Leonowens, also immediately impressed with an immaculately delivered English accent; a young talent to watch.

Frost has reunited the 1991 creative team to work its magic: Brian Thompson creating a stunning red, gold and blue set embedded with 61 000 Swarovski crystals; sumptuous costumes of silks and satins by Roger Kirk; and Nigel Levings’s evocative lighting design illuminating the whole.

Musical Director Peter Casey conducting an 18-piece orchestra delivered a crisp but elegant interpretation of the memorable Richard Rodgers’ score, while Christopher Renshaw’s very tight direction allows the work itself to shine, set as it is, amid such splendour. His inclusion of authentically Thai references, (for instance snatches of the original dialogue are spoken in Thai), add rigour and a more contemporary perspective to the story.

Susan Kikuchi, who has worked in many productions of The King and I, has again recreated the original Jerome Robbins choreography. The ballet “Small House of Uncle Thomas” forms a centrepiece of Act II and is loosely modelled on the spectacular Khon dance dramas of the Thai court, with chorus, orchestra and masked performers.

Authentically costumed in glittering gold and red, the dancers nailed the difficult dance style; upright torso and shoulders, deep turned out demi-plie and precise, but delicate movements of the arms and hands. It was a remarkable performance from the meticulously groomed ensemble, while soloist Emma Jarman as Little Eva was a delight.

The credentials of the cast of over 60, including alternate casts of children, are impressive. With such talent this King and I ticks all the boxes, receiving a standing ovation on opening night. Frost undoubtedly has another hit on his hands.

– Denise Richardson

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