The King and I review (Sydney Opera House)

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Since The King & I is set in Siam, it’s only appropriate I address the elephant in the room. Hello, Jumbo. Or is that a derisive name which only serves to perpetuate a pachydermic stereotype? There have been murmurings about inherent racism in this musical and this production of it. If nothing else, said murmurs compromised my enjoyment of opening night, if only because I found myself forensically examining every scene for telltale signs of chauvinism.

There’s no question that I probably could’ve lived without the faux Thai accents which made much of the dialogue difficult to understand; a problem exacerbated by performers (including Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King) talking too fast. It was, arguably, cringeworthy, at best. Racist? Possibly. Assuming stereotyping is likely to prove (and certainly has, historically) a pretty solid basis for such. The key slur against Opera Australia’s 2014 musical is orientalism and that would, regrettably, seem to hold. My worst moment, however, was probably contemplating the acceptability of the green mask donned in the retelling of ‘Uncle Thomas’ Small House’ (which, by the way, affords an excuse for a mini-ballet that would do a fully-fledged dance company proud), a visual euphemism for the dreaded blackface.

But there’s a counterpoint here. Perhaps its director Christopher Renshaw, in incorporating such blatancy, was embracing the opportunity to stir our outrage, or at least test it. What are we prepared to accept in the name of entertainment in 2014? How much have we changed, since the show debuted, in 1951? Has our proximity and immersion in Asia, mobility, appetite for Asian culture and awareness of living in the Asian century really refocussed our vigilance against bigotry?

Perhaps Renshaw’s production only reflects what we don’t really want to accept: that we still harbour deep-rooted prejudice. And, just perhaps, as much as writing in relative ignorance as regards Thai civilisation, its creators Rodgers & Hammerstein were examining something similar.

To the extent what we see might provoke us to reflect, it’s all good. And if we’re to censure or, worse, censor The King & I and be consistent, we’re going to have to tear at the very fabric of popular culture, surely; whether embodied in novels, plays, cinema, musicals, opera, or other artforms. Moreover, even if  Renshaw’s The King & I is racist, rather than merely reflective of racism, that is no reason to ban it. Next, we’ll be burning books.

Even putting all of that to one side, it’s hard to imagine there mightn’t have been a Thai baritone (Saran Susebsantiwongse, for example) available to play the part of the king. Sure, OA and commercial production partner John Frost mightn’t have been quite so keen to pass over the ever-popular Teddy, especially given the immense marketing impetus of life imitating art: the romance on stage is enhanced by the romance off, with Rhodes’ partner, Lisa McCune, playing Anna.

But, at long last, having despatched (or enraged) the elephant, let’s consider what this production has going for it. I think sumptuous is an adjective that’s already been bandied about, but I can’t think of a better one. Sets, costumes and the palette deployed in their creation are magnificent. The stage is layered with panels, diaphanous curtains and an ostentatious throne. Rhodes, as an actor, tends to be a victim to tropes of his own making, but, even while bordering on grating, he somehow remains endearing. He has a charismatic likability which, happily for him, is hard to dispel. There’s no bitching about the voluptuous, opulent depth of his voice; as a musical instrument it’s superb. But, ironically, it’s that very grandeur that sometimes obscures lyrics. It’s the price we pay for sensuality.

Even though she started in musicals, McCune isn’t really known as a singer (though this is beginning to change, thanks, in no small way, to OA), but she really nailed it, with the utmost clarity and a very pretty tone (no, not faint praise). Better yet, she’s a strong actor and, even from the back of the dress circle, commands attention. Charisma would seem to be something she has in common with TTR.

John Adam was particularly impressive as both Captain Orton and Sir Edward Ramsay. Marty Rhone, as The Kralahome, perversely, doesn’t get to sing, but puts in an energetic, characterful performance regardless. It might well have been opening night nerves, but Shu-Cheen Yu, as the king’s head wife, wavered between a brilliant sound and strangulation. Other than McCune, it was lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim (Adrian Li Donni & Jenny Liu) who really triumphed in the vocal stakes, individually and in duet.

Finally, there’s Hammerstein’s book and lyrics, to say nothing of Rodger’s songs. Both are master craftsmen, so that, even amidst alleged rampant racism, there’s romance. No one needs the former. But some of us still hanker for a little of the latter, now and then.

[box]The King and I is at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House and runs until November 1.Image of Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes by Brian Geach.[/box]

6 responses to “The King and I review (Sydney Opera House)

  1. I had the pleasure of seeing almost every performance of this show while it was in Melbourne owing to the fact that I work at the theatre.

    Lisa McCune is one of the finest actors ever to grace that stage. She is still, in my opinion, underrated. The scene where she “destroys the king” never failed to leave me moved, owing largely to her performance. She is an artist of the highest integrity, and a delightful, kind human being.

  2. I agree the that the stage sets ,costumes, back drops and dancing were stunning, I was so disappointed with the acoustics, our seating in the circle made it very hard to distinguish what was being said and sung. and as our seats were so far from the stage we could barely discern facial features let alone expressions

  3. Having seen both Lisa and Teddy in South Pacific was really looking forward to the King and I. However, found it really hard getting into the first act. The costumes and sets were amazing, however, some of the dialogue was hard to follow and I was quite bored. The second act came alive and enjoyed that much more, but overall considering what I paid for 3 tickets in the stalls, was quite let down. Lisa McCune is amazing and Teddy’s voice and presence very commanding but found the segment on Uncle Tom’s Cabin far too long and overall wouldn’t rate it as one of my favourites.

    1. I went to see The King & I the other day (I am from UK) have seen it in the UK before …. thought Teddy Rhodes was miss cast … too tall for one thing just didn’t look right … couldn’t understand him …. everything else was A1 apart from awful seating for a beautiful iconic building … dear me when you pay the extortionate high price you expect to sit in comforty upholstered seat … they were like what I sit in at a football , match with a cushion …I have bruises on my arms to prove it from the hard plastic arms … I can say I’ve been … prefer Sydney’s more traditional theatres …

  4. Hi All as above- You Can do something else besides go to this Show. Something more exciting like DARN Socks.
    Lisa is simple wonderful , however as a avid Theatre Goer, this was a HUFE let down.
    Yes Costumes were amazing, But then it STOPs. !! The Diction was terrible, the sound Terrible – On occasions struggling to hear. The show in short is BORING !!!
    At $40 a ticket it would still be a disappointment , let alone nearly $200 a ticket.
    If you enjoyed Lion King and Jersey Boys, stick with those memories.
    The director should get a lick in the Butt for this one.
    We had 6 of us attend, all of us rated, The King and I, below 5 out of 10.

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