king dancing

The King and I

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


When a musical is still going strong a couple of weeks before its 72nd birthday, it has to be something special, and this Broadway revival on its second sell out visit to the Alex is just that – a delightful reminder of the golden age of musicals.

The masterful set from Michael Yeargan is minimalist, gliding columns and roll on, roll off props, and  it works wonderfully well, but there is nothing minimalist about the cast who are simply superb.

Headliner Helen George, who was to play Anna, was indisposed, but any disappointment for Call the Midwife fans was quickly dispelled by a wonderful performance from Maria Coyne. I have no idea how good Maria is on dealing with breech births and the like, but when it comes to musical theatre she is an absolute star.

She has that easy command and presence that fills the stage, a voice to die for, and you can hear every word, spoken or sung, clear as a bell. Her glances and gestures give us a sense of fun and . . . well, let’s just say she is a perfect Anna who you might think had been born to the role.

From the moment she arrives with her son Louis, a fine performance from young Charlie McGuire on Press night, she has the audience eating from her hand.

Maria is the I and Darren Lee is the King. A Californian he has a long Broadway CV and arrives from playing the part in the US National tour.

It is not the easiest of roles playing a king whose word, right or wrong, wise or ridiculous, is absolute law, but whose mind is wracked with doubts and unknowns, and whose world, small and in many ways isolated, is rocked by the arrival of Anna, who has the audacity to stand up to him, not so much challenging his authority but the way he displays and uses it.


Amid all the contradictions Lee manages to display anger, naivety, frustration, affection and above all else wonderful humour and timing.

The musical is based on Anna and the King, Margaret Landon's 1944 novel which in turn is based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, who took on the role of governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.

Mongkut wanted to modernise his country, now Thailand, and protect it from the expansionism of European nations, including Britain, a state of affairs alluded to by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The real Mongkut had 32 wives and 82 children, so Anna had her work cut out - not so much a schoolteacher as a one woman comprehensive.

Her arrival provides one of the iconic tunes of the musical, The March of the Siamese Children, as we meet the King’s offspring and some of his many wives, led by his chief wife, Lady Thiang, played by Cezarah Bonner.


Cezarah Bonner as Lady Thiang

A glorious Mezzo-soprano, she played the role in the last tour in 2019 when she blew the audience away and she does it again with the voice of an angel, her Something Wonderful is one of the highlights of the show.

Another welcome returnee is Kok-Hwa Lie as Kralahome, the Prime Minister, fiercely loyal and well attuned to the predictable ways of the unpredictable king while in the background we have Chulalongkorn, the surly Crown Prince played by Caleb Lagayan. Uneasy lies the head that one day will wear the crown.

At first he resents Westerner Anna, coming to teach a country that already knew everything, but grows to not only like her but even follow her teaching. 

It might be set in the 1860s but love is the same in any age and The King and I has its fair share with Anna’s love for her late husband, Lady Thiang’s love for her own husband, and, the love that neither will nor can show itself between the King and Anna,but is there all the same.

There is even an unrequited love for Anna by her old friend, the visiting dignitary Sir Edward Ramsey, played by Sam Jenkins-Shaw, who also doubles up as Captain Orton on the steamer which brought Anna to Bankok.

And then there is the tragic love story between Tuptim, a slave sent to the King as a junior wife gift from the King of Burma, and the envoy who brought her, Lun Tha, played by Dean John-Wilson'

Tuptim played on Press night by understudy Amelia Kinu Muus, illustrated an aspect of life in the region 150 years ago where women were mere chattels and could be bartered and traded like any other goods.

The pair’s voices, his gentle tenor, her soaring soprano, blend well in their duet, I have dreamed, one of many familiar songs in the show such as Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, A Puzzlement, Hello Young Lovers, and Shall We Dance. It is telling how many songs from that golden age have become standards.

It is not all perfect though. I must admit the play within a play, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, always seems a rather uncomfortable sequence to me, a little incongruous, rather like the dream ballet in West Side Story, which, by coincidence, sported the same choreographer, Jerome Robbins in the original productions. That being said the audience applauded it enthusiastically, so what do I know.

This is a big cast along and an excellent 11 strong orchestra under musical director Christopher Mundy, a big orchestra for a touring production and it does make a huge difference to the richness and depth of the sound, a sound well balanced by Scott Lehrer on a set lit intelligently and sympathetically by Donald Holder.

As we said at the start, The King And I is about to celebrate its 72nd birthday, and longevity only comes with quality and this production, directed by Bartlett Sher, takes it to new levels. I doubt you will ever see a better production than this. Simply wonderful. The King and Anna will be dancing on to 04-03-23.

Roger Clarke


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