Theatre review: The King and I is a gorgeous puzzlement

It looks gorgeous and there are some equally gorgeous performances, but the Gateway Theatre production of The King and I is still a puzzlement.

No doubt in the more innocent and less politically correct 1950s when this musical and its more famous film cousin burst onto the scene, The King and I resonated with its audience. Today, it feels all of its 60 years with a view to a part of the world that Rogers and Hammerstein only experienced from the writings of Margaret Landon, and a plot that feels clunky at best.

Members of the cast from the Gateway Theatre production of The King and I. Photo by David Cooper.

Members of the cast from the Gateway Theatre production of The King and I. Photo by David Cooper.

The King and I tells the story of Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis who, in 1862, travel to Siam (now known as Thailand) after being hired as the King’s private tutor for his 73 children and many wives. As headstrong as the King himself, much of the shows nearly three hours (with intermission) revolves around the two of them butting heads.  This central conceit gets tiresome very quickly and to sustain the tension between Anna and the King it takes real chemistry.  While individually Jovanni Sy and Barbara Tomasic give solid performances as the King and Anna, as a duo the required tension (and certainly not even a whiff of the sexual kind) ever seems to materialize. And while it may have been accurate to the time, in our modern world of Hanna Montana twerking it just feels odd.

Here instead, director Chris McGregor keeps everything at a superficially respectful level, preferring to rely on the illicit relationship between Tuptim and Lun Tha to give it any sexual intrigue. Unfortunately, that subplot is sorely under-developed in Hammerstein’s book, and is made doubly disappointing given the stand-out performances by Rosie Simon and Justin Daniel Lapena as the doomed lovers.

The overly long “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, while at times quite gorgeous thanks to Choreographer Harriet Chung, lacked any irony and it may very well have anyone who has seen The Book of Mormon longing for “Joseph Smith American Moses”.

Even the ending is stale.  Of all the modern improvements the new King could bring to his country he chooses to eliminate the arduous bowing that passes for humour in the proceeding two and a half hours?

A great deal of the gorgeousness of The King and I though does come from Rodgers’s music, with some instantly recognizable songs like “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You”, which are handled with ease by Tomasic and the talented group of singers surrounding her.

Helping to realize the music is Musical Director Christopher King and his orchestra who are in such top form that you want your fellow audience members to settle quickly so you can actually listen to the overture and entr’acte.

Marshall McMahen’s set is also gorgeous with its gold and red hues and as the marble elephants are first pushed into place it takes a second glance to realize that they are not real. Director McGregor makes great use of the vast open spaces that McMahen has created for this huge cast of nearly forty. Carmen Alatorre has the daunting task of costuming such a large cast and does so beautifully; from the Siamese women’s garb to the traditional hoop skirts that Anna wears and helps create for the women of the court.

On the surface this production is gorgeous (and who can resist the seemingly endless parade of adorable young prince and princesses), but one doesn’t have to scratch very deep for it to reveal some ugly warts. It is indeed a puzzlement.

The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers. Books and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. Directed by Chris McGregor. Musical Direction by Christopher King. A Gateway Theatre production on stage until December 31, 2013. Visit http://www.gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.

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