I have a personal soft spot for The King and I, a wonderfully lavish telling of British school teacher Anna Leonowens, and the time she spent during the 1860’s teaching the Kings children in the royal court of Siam.

This is an interesting tale of East meets West, changing cultures and clashing gender politics underpinned by the universal sameness of romance and love. Love of children, of country and above all, romantic love. A timeless score and humorous libretto mask and parallel darker undertones of racial ignorance, oppression and slavery.

The King and I has just undergone a huge Broadway revival winning nine Tony Awards, this along with another revival in Melbourne in 2014 makes it a timely choice for Babirra Music Theatre. The sell-out gala opening on a cold night in Nunawading was a resounding success, at least as far as the appreciative audience was concerned.

As the Overture began, I got a little excited to see what was coming next, as the sound of musical director Ben Hudson’s orchestra began to play. The music from start to finish in the production was beyond the scope of anything you would think to find at this level of theatre. Professional, impeccably timed and beautifully realised, Ben Hudson never ceases to amaze with his ability to put together an orchestra and deliver a score. The musical direction was faultless; perfectly balanced, the orchestra never drew attention to itself, except for interludes that proclaimed its perfection. Apart from the superb singing, the orchestra was the highlight of the show.

The vocal performance from the whole cast was exceedingly strong, a testament to their individual talents and the mastery of the musical direction. I particularly enjoyed the ensemble singing and the impressive vocals of Anna, played by Megan Coe, and the young prince Chulalongkorn played by George Missailidis. He gave a performance both vocally and physically worthy of a seasoned performer. His confidence and ease on stage was engaging and effortless. Special mentions must also go to Josephine Grech as Lady Thiang for her powerful soprano, Janneke Ferwerda as Tuptim and Raphael Wong as her lover Lun Tha for their consistently impeccable vocals.
This was all backed up by the subtle science of good sound, delivered in this case by Greg Ginger. Vocals and music were well supported while the dialogue was never over miked. Perfectly fulfilled.

Megan Coe as Anna did not disappoint in her rendition of this iconic character, with strength, beauty and obvious stage presence. Using excellent timing and execution, Anna was all the things she should be, likable, strong willed, stubborn, whip smart and a force to be reckoned with. In all ways equal to the King. Ju-Han Soon played the King with confidence and physical grace. His interpretation of the character was less moody than has become tradition, however with obvious stagecraft Ju-Han had the audience in the palm of his hand. His performance was another highlight of this production.

Without taking away from the positives of the performances, there was room for further development of the underlying sexual and romantic chemistry between Anna and the King, room for the King to not just entertain, but frighten and intimidate, and room for Anna to be more vulnerable, flawed and impulsive. In turn the parallel relationship of Tuptim and her lover required further development, their scenes lacked nuance and chemistry, as such not reaching the emotional heights required. In some places the actors lacked motivation within the scene, the depth and subtlety of the subtext being lost.

At the helm of this production was the highly acclaimed Director Alan Burrows, known for his direction of musicals and plays alike for over 40 years. Burrows provided a strong foundation for a brilliant production, with a clear vision and obvious experience, but fell short in fully realising some of the scene and musical transitions within the action, and some of the underlying tensions with the script and the characterisations. This was further hampered by clunky staging and set pieces, including several lengthy scene changes. The Set Design by David Dare however was softened by the sweeping beauty of white stage curtains and a great use of colour. Costumes designed by Anne Hubbard were good overall, particular highlights including Tuptim’s dresses and of course Anna’s outrageous hoop gowns.

Design and Direction came together in perfect harmony with the rendition of The Small House Of Uncle Thomas. Choreography in this scene by Di Cough was inspired and well executed, with the Scientific Dogs and the Evil King being some of the most fully realised characters in the show. Choreography throughout the show was adequate and no doubt will tighten up as the season progresses. Lighting Design by Deryk Hartwick was shadowy and somewhat inconsistent throughout the production, but again displayed most depth and creativity during the above mentioned scene.

Direction was most strong during the scenes with the children. These were wonderfully creative scenes. The children of the Court were adorably individual, creating many memorable moments. Full credit should be given to every child performer on that stage, including Anna’ son Louis, played by Luc Bogemann for outstanding, committed and disciplined performances.

On leaving the theatre I heard one older gentleman exclaim, ‘that was the best show I have ever seen’. After all, we create theatre for an audience, and this audience loved every minute of Babirra’s production of The King and I. Get down to see it, etc. etc. etc.

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