Pique musical nostalgia and a world-class production.
Widely regarded as the golden musical from a golden age of musicals, The King and I is the kind of show you'd know as your parent's favourite, or one you might remember from screenings of the 1956 film on Sunday telly. You probably had the soundtrack somewhere on the CD rack in your childhood home, and the reach of songs like Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance? extends way beyond the musical-loving community.
So, naturally, the Bord Gáis Theatre was brimming with excitement on opening night.
Image via Bord Gais Energy Theatre.
From the minute the curtain lifts, you're transported back to the 1950s and the grandiose opening of films of that era with the fluttering of lavish silks and the stirring sound of the full-scale orchestra. The first number follows suit with an impressive onstage boat transporting Anna and Louis to Siam (now Thailand). However, there are also a few elements that cause the ears of the modern day viewer to prick up - the boat's captain warning Anna of the dangers of visiting a nation not "under the protection of the British flag" and Anna and Louis' palpable fear of being immersed in Eastern culture (that's why they're whistling the happy tune, after all).
If you have a sentimental attachment to a musical, you'll probably overlook outdated elements - long-time fans of My Fair Lady aren't fazed by the classism and misogyny, and no one minds that Grease is based on changing everything about yourself to get the man of your dreams when they're bopping along to Summer Lovin'. It's easy for anyone watching through a modern lens to see that elements of The King And I haven't aged well. The colonialist orientalism of Eastern culture and the notion that white, British influence is necessary for a society to progress is hard to ignore. Despite the magic of the production and undeniable talent of the cast, you might find yourself asking "why stage this now?"
Image via Bord Gais Energy Theatre.
Questions around the musical's place in modern society aside, the quality of this particular production is undeniable. The costumes, the movement and musical ability of the cast make for a magical evening and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and a-ha observations, for example in A Puzzlement (Reprise), where Louis and Prince Chulalongkorn realise that even adults don't know everything.
The decision to include Western People Funny, a song that's been frequently omitted from many modern revivals of the show has been welcomed by some creatives involved - Japanese-born actress Naoko Mori, who performed the song back in 2018 told the BBC "I was so pleased Bart (the show's director) put the number back in because it balances things out." The song addresses the Western perception of Eastern culture, observing "They think they civilize us whenever they advise us, To learn to make the same mistake that they are making too!"
It's also an interesting watch when considering the fact that Siam (Thailand) was the only South Asian country to escape European colonisation.
If you loved the film and want to see some of your favourite Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers live, you won't be disappointed by this production. It truly was brilliant and everything from the romantic, intimate love songs to the high-scale drama of Tuptim's play-within-a-play is beautifully executed. If you're looking for a night at the theatre that sends you home whistling and rushing to add the soundtrack to your Spotify queue, you'll definitely find it here.
The King and I runs til 1st July at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, and tickets are available here.
Header image via Bord Gáis Energy Theatre