Thursday, 18 June 2009

A Happy Tune - The King and I at the Albert Hall

I do love a good show; whether it’s a live orchestra playing, well, anything frankly, a talented singer doing what he/she does best, or indeed a glitzy Broadway/West End show. The latter took me further west last night - Kensington in fact - where Rodgers & Hammerstein’s sumptuous musical The King and I is currently enjoying a lavish revival at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s only the second time the glorious Victorian arena has staged a full blown musical – the first time being the Tenth Anniversary production of Les Miserables back in 1995 – and once again the hall was brought vividly to life with music, dance and colour. Of course this show is one of the old school Broadway spectaculars of the 1950s, the pair’s fifth ‘modern’ musical together, and like Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, it’s littered with memorable melodies, larger than life characters and oodles of charm.

Leading a large ensemble cast were Maria Friedman and Daniel Dae Kim – as Anna Leonowens and The King of Siam – while fine support was given by the likes of well known screen actor David Yip and soprano Jee Hyun Lim, not to mention the many other faces and voices of the royal household. Miss Friedman is of course one of the stage’s brightest stars and she shone brightly in this perfectly cast role, in fine voice and emitting a wide-eyed warmth in a series of elaborate dresses. Mr Kim, most recognisable from TV’s Lost, made his London stage debut with this show and while he was by no means the strongest singing voice in the cast, he won us over with a charming and at times humorous portrayal of a man courting the modern world, but one who refuses to bow down to it. From their first moments together on stage I found it hard to imagine that the pair would gel and become a believable duo – but that’s the point of the story I suppose, they’re as opposite as opposites can be and the feelings between them are buried way beneath the surface. Later the bristles soften of course and their joint success at impressing the British envoy and his party, celebrated with a joyous dance lesson was truly delightful, not to mention their emotional, but understated parting.

Of course the Albert Hall is not a theatre per se, and so this production was performed ‘in the round’, the actors performing in the centre of the hall with the audience surrounding them. The setting of a musical in this way is quite a different experience for both performer and audience member alike, as for the former the space and direction of projection is increased and for the latter the performance is that much more immediate – for some it was literally right before their eyes. It was a challenge for sure, particularly for those creative minds tasked with staging the show and creating the world before us. When you’re being seen from all angles there really is nowhere to hide and the team can be congratulated not just for creating a lavish setting – replete with bodies of water, boats and indoor fireworks – but also for doing it relatively conservatively. Don’t get me wrong, there was bags of opulence in the Siamese Palace, but the use of space and the change over between scenes was well executed and required little fuss. There is definitely a weightier focus on performance and costume when there isn’t a myriad of backdrops and moving scenery and in this case it was a real winner.

This was my first viewing of this particular show and I went into the hall imagining all the music would be new to me; that was naïve of course as I instantly recognised many of the songs. Staple repertoire fillers such as I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance? were instantly recognisable, while Hello, Young Lovers and I Have Dreamed were new to me and I shall certainly seek them out and listen to them again. The latter saw beautiful performances by Ethan Le Phong and Yanle Zhong as the young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, who cannot be together as she ‘belongs’ to the King. Le Phong was especially impressive and he would have made a fine King – I’d like to have seen/heard him perform A Puzzlement, the King’s big number, which was probably the weakest song in the show sadly.

Dance of course played a role in the show and the set piece for choreographer Susan Kikuchi was the performance of The Small House of Uncle Thomas, during which Princess Tuptim addresses her hatred of the King through her interpretation of an American story about slavery. To be honest this part was a tad lengthy and it was easy to lose focus – a casualty of the ‘round’ setting perhaps, being that the effects had to come from props and lighting on the ground, rather than the all encompassing and changeable surround of a proscenium stage.

Performing the music on the stage proper – though cloaked behind flowing drapes and ornate columns – was the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by seasoned Musical Director Gareth Valentine. The usual acoustic was somewhat dulled by their shroud – though to be fair it was the voices that were the main focus here – but they did a wonderful job as ever. The score represents one of Richard Rodgers’ finest and most incandescent, with the March of the Siamese Children being a wonderful musical set piece and highlight as Anna meets each of her new pupils, just some of the King’s many heirs. The children themselves were warmly received and each turned in a lovely performance – though at times it seemed Prince Chulalongkorn was lost somewhere between Hackney and Bangkok, as his accent flitted between the two quite often. Neither he or young Louis – performed here by Tony Nguyen and Lewis Cornay – were given their chance to shine vocally as their song, the Reprise of A Puzzlement was excised from the show for reasons unknown. Of course I wouldn’t have known otherwise having never seen the show before, but my companion actually played the part of Louis in the 1990/91 production (starring Susan Hampshire as Anna) and so he immediately drew my attention to it.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II rejuvenated the Broadway stage with shows like The King and I in 1951 and this week it’s happening all over again with this gilded spectacle at the Royal Albert Hall. This is a rare opportunity to experience musical theatre as never before and while the likes of Hairspray, Avenue Q and Wicked are perhaps more flavour of the month with the younger generation, they owe their existence to shows like this. The old ones really are the best and no mistake.

The King and I is at London’s Royal Albert Hall until June 28th. Tickets are still available priced between £21.50 and £62.50. Group discounts and hospitality packages are available. Visit for further information or ring 020 7838 3100 to book tickets.

With huge thanks to Jodie Jenkins at the Royal Albert Hall.

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