The King and I


The King and I

Opera Australia & John Frost

QPAC Lyric Theatre

April 19 – June 1 2014


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward




I’m not kidding. If you’re ever going to spend $159.90 on a theatre ticket (and another twenty bucks on a program), make it this time, for this show. Whatever you come away thinking about the issues of race and subservience, etc, etc, etc; if you’ve gone in expecting to be entertained you will be entertained! Director, Christopher Renshaw, and a lovely, big, full-scale musical theatre/opera budget have made sure of that.


The King and I. Image by Brian Geach.


Moments after I posted a pic of the proscenium and the immense red panels on stage, four Buddhist monks entered the Lyric Theatre, carrying incense. Not long after taking our seats we’d picked up on the evocative scent and the soothing sounds of meditation bells (Poppy downloaded a similar sounding app for my iPhone). I love this multi-sensory live theatre experience – we did the same for audiences in an empty surf shop in Mooloolaba when we staged the return season of Erotique, only it was Twenty8 Romance & Intimacy essential oil blend burning in diffusers we’d placed throughout the space – the scent is more important than you might think, adding an extra dimension to the challenging task of transporting us to another time and place.


The time is the 1800s and the place is Siam, the name given by foreigners to Thailand before 1939.


It feels like a street I walked down in Yogyakarta (though the prominent scent then was durian!), or the opening moments of Miss Saigon, all exotic, chaotic street, market and bar business. “One of us will be Miss Saigon.” Oh. Right. (I’m surprised the budget didn’t stretch to a live snake actually, aren’t you?)… And out of the noise and the mist of the harbour enters Lisa McCune, to a smattering of applause; she’s the uncertain but certainly bold Miss Anna, English schoolteacher. With her is a young boy, Riley Brooker, as her son, Louis. (The role is shared between Brooker, and Bailey Kelleher). They are very English, very proper, and they very precisely sing the first of many favourite Rodgers & Hammerstein’s songs, I Whistle a Happy Tune. Flanked by enormous red elephants beneath the proscenium, we know that the palace of the King of Siam will be breathtaking and now we’re as excited and as nervous as they are; we can’t wait to see it (and to meet the King)! When the bejewelled panels slide out magically to reveal a multidimensional panelled set of immense proportions, there are audible gasps from the audience – I think one of them is mine – because this is the most gorgeous, lavish set we’ve seen in an age, and it’s a rare pleasure (Set Design Brian Thomson). At Interval I hear, “Oh, it’s very opera.” That’s fitting, considering this is another collaboration, after the success of South Pacific, with Opera Australia. I’m sure there must be a third in pre-pre-pre-production discussion stages – the chemistry between McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes, whether real or imagined y’all, is too good to let go of just yet. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


Also “very opera” is Jenny Liu in the role of Tuptim, the young girl sent to the King as a gift from Burma. Liu traverses lightly between opera and musical theatre in a beautifully measured performance, perfectly matched by star on the rise, Adrian Li Donni as Lun Tha. Their moments together are delightful and tears may well as the music swells during their first act duet We Kiss in a Shadow and second act duet I Have Dreamed. But it’s Shu-Cheen Yu (Lady Thiang) who almost steals the show when she sings fervently to Anna Something Wonderful. (Singers, go ye and see her sing this because, singers, this is why we sing). Under the expert musical direction of Peter Casey, this orchestra is ideal; rich and sumptuous.


The King and I. Image by Brian Geach.


I say she almost steals the show because despite the fine performances of everybody else in this production – including that of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, which is as solid a performance as we need in this role, as the spoilt, sexist, too-slow-to-evolve King of Siam – this is McCune’s show. A strong adult ensemble, which delivers The Small House of Uncle Thomas just as we love to see it done, with reverence and tradition and terror and sadness and joy (Choreographer Susan Kikuchi), and a cute children’s chorus can’t compete with McCune; not with her smile or her on stage style, which is helped immensely in this production, it’s true, by Roger Kirk’s multi award winning designs. There must be at least six costume changes for McCune (I lost count!), and each gown is superb. My favourites – the boudoir robe (Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?) and the ball gown (Shall We Dance?) – are exquisite. And it’s during the exuberant Shall We Dance that Teddy Tahu Rhodes successfully navigates the masses of fabric and literally sweeps McCune off her feet! For half a moment her eyes widen in surprise at the shock of a higher-and-faster-than-must-have-happened-during-rehearsals lift or twirl or swirl or something. But it doesn’t matter, in fact, for those who catch it, the expression adds to the thrill of the dance and when the King announces, “Again!” we want to experience it again too. It’s actually a travesty that there is no reprise and repeat of that polka. We have enjoyed, however, a reprise of Hello, Young Lovers; it’s the gentlest show stopper ever and it takes my breath away in an entirely different way.


I should mention that the young boy who plays the eldest son and heir to the throne does an almighty job in this lovely little role and really shines by the end of the night, as he psyches himself into being King. Incidentally, unlike at the conclusion of the movie, I don’t shed a tear when his father the King dies. He’s set so far back! I feel bad for not feeling sadder but then, suddenly, before we’ve had time to actually finish even exhaling, the media is ready to capture an Australian premiere standing ovation in Brisbane, and the brightest white light from a television camera makes me feel like all the emotion of the show is wasted! As long as the media gets their shot! A cheap shot!


I should also mention that I still feel it’s a crap ending. Isn’t it? So sad, so thinly veiled with hope for the new world order. I mean, for the King to decide to fade away that way? What even is that!? GET UP! Let’s face it, the production is pure escapism and it’s why we love the old shows. Well, there’s still something terribly irksome about aspects of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Carousel, Oklahoma and Show Boat but (The dancing! The songs!) …there is also something glorious and heartwarming in a good old fashioned, glittering romance. Sam disagrees. Sort of.


The King and I. Image by Brain Geach.


“It’s entertainment Viagra. Is there a place for it? Yes, there is. But telling a Rodgers and Hammerstein story in such a lavish way in 2014 is important for reasons you’re not even thinking about. Is it important because the story is important? No, it’s outdated and irrelevant, like South Pacific was. But it’s nice and I applaud Frosty for being bold enough to roll out two old girls in a row and make them work.”


“So you think there should be more of it?” I’m hopeful. Sometimes I just love an entertaining show, you know? And this one is entertaining AND good! Also, this conversation should not end in a fight. It’s late, it’s a school night, and I’ve got to get a move on and write the column too, and you know how long it takes to add links and images here (the big images are back! Hooray!), plus I was going to make real breakfast before school, after yoga and meditation and my morning pages… C’mon! Get to the point, Sam.


“I don’t think there should be more of it; I think there should be less of it, but if it’s going to be done, let it be done by John Frost. It hasn’t even had new life breathed into it, has it? It’s just a new, good, fun take on a much-loved show with a great, golden set. They’ve just done it the way it should be done. The remnants of the baby boomers are being tapped – the oldies want the oldies and they want them done with that girl from Blue Heelers.”


I’m appalled. I retort, “She looks twenty-two and she sings like a bird!” Wait. Did he just call me old?


“You loved it and you should. It’s beautiful, colourful, it cost a lot of money and it let you get away for a couple of hours. Good. It’s all good. I’m going to bed.” Clearly, this conversation is unfinished.


The King and I. Image by Brain Geach.


Meanwhile, Poppy has appeared to check whether or not I’ve finished Our Review Of The King and I because she has to go to bed too. “It’s a school night, Mum.” She has something to add: “I loved it, it was beautiful. I love the movie but it’s sad. I loved how there was gold glitter that rained down on us at the end! It was awesome.”


And there you have it; as good a reason as any to go see this beautiful, lavish, ravishing, dazzling, all-the-superlatives production. #outofthemouthsofbabes


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