Do You Value Independent Arts Journalism & Would You Like To Help Us Produce More? Find Out More

The King and I review (Princess Theatre, Melbourne)


You have to wonder why Opera Australia decided that The King and I was ripe for a revival. Of all Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, it’s probably the one with the most obvious problems in its representation of race.

The King and I is based upon Margaret Landon’s novel, Anna and the King; which is based upon the real life Anna Leonowens’ memoirs. It covers the cultural clashes between the King Mongkut of Siam (now Thailand) and the English governess he hired to teach his many children. Mongkut famously embraced Western culture and philosophy, and The King and I covers all the wonderful new things the awfully confused people of Siam learnt from the visiting Westerners. The musical may well have things to say that are relevant to today’s audience, but Opera Australia’s production doesn’t show that.

To accuse Rodgers and Hammerstein of racism is a little absurd; they wrote about other cultures because they were intrigued and inspired by them and wrote the Pulitzer-winning South Pacific as a vigorous anti-racism statement. But the 1940s and ‘50s were a long time ago.

To make those statements, they traded on the stereotypes of other races that they knew from Western culture, and it takes a deft hand to wipe over these problems and cut away at the stereotypes to get to the heart of the piece. Bartlett Sher did so with his 2008 Broadway revival of South Pacific (which was Opera Australia’s last Rodgers and Hammerstein production) by giving its most troublesome character, Bloody Mary, complex motivations and a complete character arc.

British director Christopher Renshaw, who created this production of The King and I in Australia back in 1991, had lived in Thailand for a time when he created the production, and wanted to create an “authentic Thai experience”. Although this production looks authentic and uses authentic language, imagery, religious references and movement, it doesn’t manage to elevate the piece. The New York Post claimed Renshaw’s production was a King and I for the 21st century when it opened on Broadway in 1996. But even 1996 was a long time ago.

Renshaw’s production is gorgeously constructed, moving with pace and bringing to life the moments of intimacy as well as spectacle. Even if it never quite ignites, it’s a tasteful and faithful rendering of the piece. Brian Thomson’s lavish sets are as evocative as the incense that’s burning as the audience enters the theatre, and Roger Kirk’s costumes are almost garishly sumptuous. I wouldn’t be surprised if fifty percent of the design budget went towards sequins and diamantes.

Lisa McCune’s Anna and Jason Scott Lee’s King are both a gift to this production. McCune out-Deborah Kerrs Deborah Kerr with her dignified, loving Anna, and delivers a solid but delicate vocal performance. She again picks up the dramatic slack for some of her co-stars with her “reactions” to everything happening around her.

Scott Lee brings the boyish playfulness of the King and executes the comedic moments perfectly, even if the vocals are a little weak. He and McCune are in step with each other, and it’s in their one-on-one scenes that the dramatic meat of the production lies.

Shu-Cheen Yu sings arguably the best song from the show, Something Wonderful, as head wife Lady Thiang with determination and a full, colourful vocal tone. Adrian Li Donni and Jenny Liu sing sweetly as the “young lovers” Lun Tha and Tuptim, even if there’s not a great deal of chemistry between them.

The biggest problem is in the way that the ensemble has been directed. The ensemble members aren’t given the scope to create their own individual characters in any way, which just reinforces that the production works with a single image of who the Thai people are. The chorus has a single reaction to everything that happens around them, which is usually just confusion or fear. There’s no problem with comedy arising out of cultural clashes and confusion, but almost every laugh here comes when the Thai characters fail to understand some Western concept. But the King’s children are ridiculously cute.

The highlight of the production is Jerome Robbins’ ballet for The Small House of Uncle Thomas, stunningly recreated by Susan Kikuchi. And there’s also magic when the orchestra, under Peter Casey’s baton, strikes up and McCune and Scott Lee enthusiastically polka around the stage in Shall We Dance. For anybody who grew up with The King and I, or anybody discovering the piece for the first time, it’s these moments that transport you to a place of joy and adventure. I’m just not sure those moments are quite enough.

The King and I is at the Princess Theatre until 17 August. Featured image by Oliver Toth

13 responses to “The King and I review (Princess Theatre, Melbourne)

  1. Susan is probably a frustrate singer I think, In any case it was exactly so for me as anon said so well. There is nothing B grade about Mc Cune as a singer and as an actress.

  2. I saw the King and I at the Opera House over the weekend and I truly wanted to love this show however in my opinion it was a weak, there was some lovely moments ie ‘The small house of Uncle Thomas’ but the rest of the show I found lacking!

  3. I think the review is very tactful – overall it is rather disappointing and Australian musical theatre really needs to take pause and evaluate how to ensure true talent is brought to the stage. With respect, b-grade former television stars make great headlines but not great songlines.

    1. There’s nothing B Grade about McCune – just with your attitude and lack of generosity. McCune was trained for musical theatre but got cast in a TV show at a very early age. Before you continue to cut her down, maybe you should take 10 minutes or so to read her rave reviews from South Pacific and her earlier theatre work.

  4. I would prefer to see Jason Scott Lee as the King as opposed to the white Teddy Rhodes in racist yellowface makeup for the Brisbane and Sydney productions.

  5. As a first timer attending and watching this production, and quite new to musical theatre , I’m a little disappointed with Bens reviews…I’m a huge fan of the original classic movie of The King and I, and as a youngster I whistled a happy tune for years and years to follow. After hearing about this production coming to town, I was so excited to see how this wonderful classic movie would be produced and directed as a stage musical. Now in my late 40’s, and after watching the performance , I’m actually blown away . Incredible acting, beautiful voices, amazing costumes , the orchestra – Wow & scenery…took me back to Old School Thailand…All I can say is – Perfection at its Best… Definitely watching it again. Happy Audience Member.

  6. Ben overall The King and I is a brilliant production – as is Wicked. Are you a reviewer or a critic? Do reviewers/critics in Australia affect box office. If they do, don’t rob people of the opportunity to enjoy such happy magic as quality theatrical attractions offers.

    1. Certainly not robbing people of any opportunity. People are quite welcome to go to whatever show and will go to whatever show. I think there are other shows more worthy of audience’s time and money and I throw my support behind those shows. You obviously have a different opinion. Glad you enjoyed it.

      1. Ok, whatever. It’s frankly getting boring & pointless. You get offended on your own behalf if that rings your bells. I think, going by the sales, that the majority of taxpayers forking out money for seats are grateful for the 3 hours of fun and watching McCune & Rhodes striking sparks off each other. THATS why they cast him and it’s working, you live in your perfect world and the rest of us will grub along in ours!

    2. I agree Harper. My audience was obviously enjoying every minute. I don’t understand all the ranting about the in-PC nature of the show. It’s been around for decades and if people are offended by its themes they should avoid it and see something else. I’m offended by the extreme misogyny oozing out of movies and TV but I don’t think people are going to turn into gun wielding womanisers if they expose themselves to that material. Furthermore, from childhood on I always felt that Lady Chuing and Tuptim were every bit as strong and wise as Anna and all 3 characters were confined in some way by culture and the restrictions placed on women at that time.

      1. This production turns Lady Thiang, Tuptim and all the Asian female characters into one single stereotype with no agency or distinguishing features amongst them. It’s appalling. My problem is not so much with the source material, but with the way this production simply rehashes the stereotype. We deserve better. Opera Australia is 25% government funded, and I think it’s appropriate to say something when taxpayer money is being spent on something that’s racially insensitive.

  7. As ever, Ben your observations are succinct and very well expressed. (AND infinitely tactful!) Whilst I’m sorry you’re heading back to Sydney, I’ll look forward to reading more of your work from there! All the very best to you …


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Newsletter Signup