Freelance journalist with a passion for theatre, the arts, food and books.
Big Show, Big Dress For Christmas in Birmingham
I can remember curled up watching The King and I movie with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr over and over again as a child. An escape into an exotic world with catchy songs and a majestic sequence where he swirls her around the dancefloor.
Many, like me, will have this emotional memory attached to the film, so it's always a gamble when a stage version has to compete with that. This musical has gone big on everything - costumes, set and cast with over 50 on stage - so is that enough?
The King and I stays at Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham over the Christmas season, until January 4. It's the traditional musical that the Alex holds every year over the festive season.
As a Tony Award-winning show, there are high expectations, especially as its leads have played the roles in London's West End for Annalene Beechey (Anna) and on Broadway for Jose Llana (the King), but he is only in the role until Saturday December 14. After that, Kok-Hwa Lie takes over as the King of Siam.
The chemistry between Anna and The King is delightful
Set in 1860's Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna, a headstrong British schoolteacher whom he has hired to teach his many wives and children.
It opens as it means to go in - with grandeur - as widow Anna and her son arrive in Bangkok on a boat taking up much of the stage.
The truly lavish set easily transports the audience into the historic Far East with sumptuous stage changes that recreate the King of Siam's palace accompanied by a dazzling array of costumes.
Alongside these is a glorious soundtrack of well-known classics from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical including Shall We Dance, Getting To Know You and I Whistle A Happy Tune and Hello, Young Lovers.
While the drama is a little slow to get started, this three-hour show lays the groundwork in early scenes and really gets going as Anna and the King's relationship develops. Their run-ins and playful arguments are reminiscent of any classic rom-com with a sizzling chemistry hiding behind their discord.
Beechey, originally from Coventry, and Llana know these characters well and are a perfect combination. Likeable, confident and bold on stage, they are both charismatic, which is essential for this show to work.
What makes this show even more special is how multi-layered it is with various sub-plots and hard-hitting themes running through. At its core is Anna and the King but there is also the endearing nature of Anna's relationship with his children and wives, and a lesson in empowerment as she encourages them gently to fight against male domination and slavery.
On another level, there's also the political aspect of how independent countries in the East felt pressure from Western empires, along with the harsh decisions a ruler makes to keep order, which involves upsetting scenes involving the slave Tuptim and her lover.
Tuptim's plot is a relevant one about slavery and the role of women
In the experienced hands of Tony Award-winning director Bart Sher, who was also responsible for South Pacific and My Fair Lady on Broadway, the musical manages to beautifully balance out the romance and comedy of the story with those more serious topics, along with the cultural East meets West differences.
The many children in the production, playing the King's family, are a joy to watch and make this a sentimental show. While a thoroughly entertaining Thai ballet performed at the start of Act Two is an exquisite experience of Eastern dance and costumes. This is Tuptim's recreation of Uncle Tom's Cabin through dance and hits home about slavery.
The ultimate scene that everyone is waiting for, however, is the one where the King and Anna dance - and it doesn't disappoint.
Featuring Anna in a huge Victorian ballgown, weighing three stone and nicknamed Bertha by Beechey, there's a build up of expectation to the moment that the King pulls Anna into his arms to whisk her around the room after learning how to do the Polka.
Set to song Shall We Dance?, they breathlessly move around pillars that cleverly move as they dance, to make it seem as though they are in a bigger space.
It's a magical scene and as one woman in the audience sighed in front of me, "what woman wouldn't want to be swirled around the room like that?".
While Beechey and Llana stand out, the whole cast is a finely tuned machine, including all the adorable children. Paulina Yeung as Tuptim is excellent with a powerful voice, as is Ethan Le Phong as her secret lover Lun Tha.
Although be warned, you should expect a few tears at the end as this is not a dance into the sunset kind of show.
The King and I is not just a musical, it's a spectacular event that whisks you away to a far away land as well as swirling you around a palace dancefloor. This superb show is full of heart and will totally enchant, so catch it while you can.