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Posts Tagged ‘The King and I’

This is the second production of this show at Chichester in a decade. Given there have only been two in the West End (originating in Leicester in 1980 and the NT in 1998) in the 70 or so years since it’s UK premiere, that’s quite something. Is there some affinity between Sussex and the state of Oklahoma that I’ve missed?

It was the first of of eleven collaborations between Rogers and Hammerstein during their sixteen years writing together, including the more frequently revived Carousel, South Pacific The King & I and The Sound of Music. It was ground-breaking in so many ways, but now we can look back on their whole career it seems to have somewhat less depth than what followed. Still, how can you resist a hoe-down with some cowboys and their gals and tunes like Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top and the title song, and what other show can boast a song that became a state anthem.

It’s really a simple love story revolving around whether the farmer or the cowboy wins the heart of young farm owner Laurey. Revivals have tended to emphasise the darker side of one suitor’s jealousy and disappointment leading to rage and violence, as they do here. The lack of native American characters or references is a bit glaring, given it’s set on the eve of the statehood of Oklahoma, created from their territory and reservations, but hey, this is 75-year-old musical theatre.

Robert Jones’ set, Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes and Mark Henderson’s lighting combine to give it a terrific look, propelling you several thousand miles west and more than a hundred years back in time. There’s a windmill, giant barn doors and plenty of bales of straw. Matt Cole’s athletic choreography takes your breath away and the set pieces and dream ballet are thrilling. It’s a big fifteen piece Chichester band again, this time under MD Nigel Lilley, and they sound great. Director Jeremy Sams is the master at marshalling big resources and making something old feel as fresh as new, as he’s done with other R&H shows, and does again here.

Much of the success of the production is age appropriate casting of early career talent. Hoyle O’Grady, Amara Okereke and Emmanuel Kojo are terrific in the love triangle roles of Curly, Laurey & Jud respectively, all with fine vocals, which is the other key to the show’s success, in just about every role. Isaac Gryn and Bronte Barbe are fine too as the somewhat intellectually challenged Will and Ado Annie, and there’s a brilliantly funny cameo from Scott Karim, who makes much of the role of Ali Hakim, the Persian peddler who becomes intertwined with them.

As fine a revival as you could wish for. Given that it hasn’t has a West End outing for over twenty years, it would be good to see this one make the 70 mile journey north-east where I for one would be sure to see it again.

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I criticised the new London production of The King & I for being conservative and overly reverential; like visiting the Museum of Musical Theatre. Well, this show is 14 years older, but that’s the last thing you’d say about this brilliant revival; it feels freshly minted, with an extraordinary sense of fun and its full of joy.

It’s a quintessentially British story. The trustees of the aristocratic Hareford family have been looking for a male heir born to a working class girl and solicitor Parchester thinks she’s found him, cockney lad Bill Snibson. He’s about as interested in joining the nobility as they are in having him, but the Duchess of Dene is determined to gentrify him and get rid of his girlfriend Sally Smith. Fellow trustee Sir John has a different view. Cue lots of lovely class culture clash involving a lot of toffs and pearly kings and queens.

Sally feels she should leave Bill so that he can inherit the title and all that goes with it, but Bill is having none of it. Sir John decides to gentrify Sally instead. Cue references to Pygmalion (if they were in the original) or perhaps My Fair Lady (if they were added by Stephen Fry for the hugely successful 1985 revival). It works, and Bill and Sally are reunited and wed, as are the Duchess and Sir John. Along the way, we get a brilliant scene where they conjure up the ancestors – tap dancing knights in armour! – a great drunken scene which bonds Bill and Sir John, and sensational ensemble set pieces to end Act I and start Act II.

My recollection of the 1985 London revival, with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson, which ran twice as long as the original – eight years! – was ‘too twee for me’, but this time it swept me away and my spirits soared. It’s a terrific music hall inspired score by Noel Gay, including the title song, The Sun Has Got His Hat On, Leaning On A Lamppost and of course The Lambeth Walk. The combination of Les Brotherston’s superb design (in particular, his costumes), Alistair David’s light-as-air choreography and Daniel Evans astute direction ensures it sparkles like a diamond, literally some of the time. Gareth Valentine’s arrangements are thrilling and his band sound sensational; he even gets to do a turn at the curtain call.

Matt Lucas is a revelation as Bill. He talent for comedy is well known, but he adds good vocals and sprightly dance to create a classic cheeky cockney. Alex Young is lovely as his intended Sally, whether she’s leading a knees-up or breaking her heart and yours with Once You Lose Your Heart. Caroline Quentin and favourite of mine Clive Rowe are delightful as the Duchess and the Knight. What I love most about this cast is that it’s all shapes, sizes and races whose talent, energy and enthusiasm sweep you away.

I’ve often left Chichester musicals on a high, but this and Half a Sixpence are special because they bring great British shows alive for today. Daniel Evans apparently said he wanted a new lick of paint, well in my book its a thrilling makeover. Don’t even think about not transferring it; London needs it !

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