Paul Selar is reviewing Opera Australia’s Melbourne Autumn season with guidance from professional critics, Opera Australia’s own music staff and writing professionals.
Exotic, mesmerising and full of rich memories
Review by Paul Selar
Opera Australia and John Frost’s The King and I begins with a flurry of portside activity in mid-19th century Siam (Thailand). An agitated, hoop-dressed woman and her son enter, but before their quaint, saccharine, opening song, “I whistle a happy tune” is over, I was wondering where the night was heading. A beautiful transformation occurs, however, as a lavish golden palace interior is revealed, and with it a performance of respectable strength.
The hoop-dressed woman is Anna Leonowens, a widowed Englishwoman, appointed to teach English to the King of Siam’s umpteen children and their “in-favour” mothers. The chemistry between the disparate pair begins confrontationally then unfolds flirtatiously but romance-wise, amounts to nothing more than an endearingly goofy dance “lesson”. Loosely based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam (which in turn is based on Anna Leonowens’s diaries), the musical was Roger and Hammerstein’s fifth collaborative work, premièring in 1951.
Director Christopher Renshaw’s approach leans towards the light-hearted in this multi award-winning production first seen in 1991 at the Adelaide Festival Theatre. Much of the acting is stylistic rather than fluid. It’s funny enough to bring a laugh and cheesy enough at times to cringe but entertainment value comes first, poignancy second.
There is, however, nothing spared to impress the eye. Set designer Brian Thomson’s seemingly fairy-tale version of the period mildly assists to lessen the politics of place (the musical is still banned in Thailand). Cast blocking works marvellously throughout scene changes and Roger Kirk’s detail-laden, period costumes enliven the characters effectively with assistance from Nigel Levings’ crisp lighting.
Musically, conductor Peter Casey lovingly renders Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations and finds perfect synergy between pit and stage, eliciting clarity of sound and exciting orchestral colour from the 18 members of the orchestra,
Overlaying an exotic richness, graceful dance forms of the “orient” are mesmerisingly captured by choreographer Susan Kikuchi (original choreography by Jerome Robbins). Act II’s ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”, presented with gorgeous, pizzicato vocal accompaniment, is a once-seen-never-forgotten highlight.
Lisa McCune, as Anna, captivates with a poised performance. McCune’s voice isn’t large, but it sparkles and meanders with warmth to match her stagecraft. Her consummate musical experience elevates the production enormously and she works magic in settling understudy, young Chris Fung, as the King. Fung, however, secures his presence on the stage with praiseworthy confidence and physical might. He replaces Jason Scott Lee, who withdrew due to injury (until Tony award-winner, Lou Diamond Phillips, assumes the role from 10 July). Despite his King appearing too boyishly spoilt, the pairing with McCune works well enough with plentiful diplomacy and humour.
Anna’s romance-dry life contrasts with that of one of the King’s younger wives, Tuptim, sensually brought to life by Jenny Liu. Together with her lover, Lun Tha, portrayed with heartfelt vigour by Adrian Li Donna, the couple’s desperate but doomed love is leveraged with finesse. Shu-Cheen Yu, in impressive voice, is an empathetic but cautionary Lady Thiang. Marty Rhone is balanced as the kowtowing Kralahome and John Adam provides a hearty performance as Captain Orton. Reappearing in eloquent form as Sir Edward Ramsay, Adam could almost go undetected as the actor of dual roles.
The company of children bring innocence and added sweetness to the palace, led fearlessly with fine performances from Campbell MacCorquodale as Louis Leonowens and George Missailidis as Prince Chulalongkorn. Altogether, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons with Rogers and Hammerstein’s final collaborative success, The Sound of Music.
Overall, despite being a production that relies heavily on entertaining highlights rather than dramatic astuteness this The King and I is well worth seeing and, what will likely be, full of rich memories for those who do.
For tickets and more information, visit Opera Australia’s website.