Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I harks back to the golden age of musical theatre. It is a masterwork of the genre, and as Savoyards’ 2017 main stage season opener, it set a very high bench mark.
A production like The King and I rides the line between cultural exploration, and cultural insensitivity in the way that a lot of musicals written in the golden age do, particularly the works of Rogers and Hammerstein. If let get out of hand, it can be galling and an audience will find it dated and hard to access. Careful direction by Johanna Toia ensured that this was never the case. Toia was obviously in her element, as she carefully unpacked the world of Siam circa 1860, lifted the veil, and let the audience have a look inside.
Set against a frankly breathtaking golden set design (Sherryl-Lee Secomb), that is remarkable for marrying the simplicity of a static set, with the true opulence of Siam. Secomb’s creation is cunningly inventive for with the addition of a single chair or bed or dais to the stage and a simple splash of lighting (Allan Nutley) we found ourselves in a myriad of classrooms, throne rooms, bedrooms, and palace chambers.
What would a Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical be without their iconically beautiful orchestrations? Led with a deft hand by musical director Benjamin Tubb-Hearne, the orchestra was more than up to the challenging score, and the combined ensemble sang through the deceptively difficult vocal score with seeming ease. Rounding out the production team was the gorgeous choreography by Carlie McEachern, beautifully navigating the sometimes cramped and crowded spaces. Of particular note was the narrated ballet ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas”, which was a rich and imaginative physicalisation of the story.
Anna Leonowens (Miranda Selwood) is an outwardly difficult character. She has a warmth, and a strength that are too easily underplayed. Selwood nails the balance giving us a determined and strong character with all of the vulnerabilities and moments of second guessing that we could wish for. Her acting prowess is only matched and enhanced by her extraordinary vocal ability, soaring breathlessly through crowd favourites “I Whistle A Happy Tune”, “Getting To Know You”, and “Hello, Young Lovers”. However, it is in “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You” that Selwood really gets to go to work. Her ensemble work with the children is a delight, and the delicate and unspoken relationship she allows to grow with The King of Siam was a delight for the audience.
As King of Siam, Reindert Toia owned the palace, and the stage, bringing the deeply divided ruler to life. Toia perfectly rode the balance between comedy and truth through much of his performance, never once allowing it to spill over into farce. His larger than life portrayal of a King who ruled through sheer willpower was a delight and often had the audience in stitches, especially during “A Puzzlement”. It was not all laughter from Toia however, as he found the perfect moments to show the deep conflict within the character, and drove the show mercilessly toward the ill fated end causing much of the audience shed a tear.
Opposite Toia as Lady Thiang, Vanessa Wainwright brought the First Wife and mother to the heir of Siam front and centre. A wonderfully arch performance let Wainwright snip and snide with the other wives, build a beautiful and enduring relationship with Selwood’s Anna, and softly, but firmly, guide her progeny to his rightful place on the throne. Wainwright’s performance is gorgeous and her rich, powerful vocals lifted beautifully, especially in the tongue in cheek “Western People Funny”.
Tuptim (Dani Heraud) and Lun Tha (Mike Zarate) round out the story, a pair of star struck lovers who fight against the oppression and circumstance that brought them both together in the first place. Heraud plays a feisty, determined Tuptim, giving her lovely vocals and bold character choices to the role. Her narration of the ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is a treat. As her love interest Lun Tha, Zarate makes a soft spoken, quiet appeal to love and dreaming. His vocals blend beautifully with Heraud’s during the duet section of “I Have Dreamed”. Zarate must also receive a high commendation, he was a late addition to the cast and unless I had read it in the program notes, I would never have known. His strength and surety of voice, character, and movement were spot on.
As Anna’s son, Louis, Anthony Diakos-Masters played a wonderfully innocent and full spirited youth. Afraid of his new surroundings and thrilled to be there with equal measure. In particular his burgeoning friendship with Prince Chulalongkorn, played by Oliver Cameron was one that the audience enjoyed very much. Their reprisal of “A Puzzlement” was lovely, and a wonderfully acted commentary on the state of affairs in the rest of the show.
Honourable mentions must be given to Kristan Ford for his portrayal of King Simon of Legree, and Louise Drysdale for her Eliza during the ballet scene. Additionally, an honourable mention to each and every child in the production for their wonderful work in “The March of the Siamese Children” which was surely an audience favourite.
The Savoyards’ production of The King and I is in equal measures fierce, delicate, sheltered and breathtakingly exposed and every moment of it is drenched in the golden age beauty of a Rogers and Hammerstein score. The season runs until July 1st. This is not a show to be missed.