Updated: Aug 27, 2019
The King and I
Reviewed by Ron Lee on 9 September 2014
Joan Sutherland Theatre Sydney Opera House
Until November 1
Photo: Brian Geach
Things to do in Sydney: Visit the Opera House
Admittedly, I was hoping and anticipating that this most recent production of The King and I would be stupendous. Normally a bit blasé about upcoming theatrical productions, the anticipation had been rising in me for months. It had won the recent Helpmann Awards for Best Musical, Best Costume Design (Roger Kirk’s costumes are breathtaking) and Best Sound Design, and deservedly so.
But these weren’t the reasons for my emotional attachment. As a child, I was cast in the original Australian professional production of The King and I at Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre which was demolished in 1966, and it proved to be twenty-two of the most significant weeks of my young life.
Considering that the musical is set in 1867, it might have been suitable to put this one on at the State Theatre or the Capitol Theatre, but with the new interpretation and modernisations, and the fact that it’s produced by Opera Australia and John Frost, it’s entirely appropriate to stage it at the Sydney Opera House.
All of the songs are there; Whistle A Happy Tune, Hello Young Lovers, Getting To Know You, Something Wonderful, A Puzzlement, We Kiss In A Shadow and Shall We Dance? are all eternal Rodgers and Hammerstein favourites.
As Lady Thiang, a highlight is Shu-Cheen Yu, an opera singer who can also act, and her soaring soprano voice gives goosebumps. Adrian Li Donni and Jenny Liu are also well-cast as the young lovers.
However, this production contains some ironies.
Not that I was expecting him to burst into Denim and Lace, but 1970s pop star Marty Rhone, solid as The Kralahome, is in the only principal role that doesn’t sing.
Also, some of the cast members look not so much Siamese or Thai as Italian and Lebanese.
It’s possible that director Christopher Renshaw might be a Monty Python fan because the normally suave Sir Edward Ramsay (John Adam) enters as Michael Palin, and in one scene, The Kralahome, usually an old-school, traditional, hard-edge, alpha male, becomes Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Playing King Mongkut, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, at a height of 1.96 metres (6’5”), has the attitude, posture, movements, gestures, accent and vocal inflections that couldn’t possibly be less Asian, and this King projects sarcasm; it’s “Peter Garrett Meets John Cleese”. It’s clear that Teddy Tahu Rhodes, an “eager actor”, was cast purely for his magnificent baritone voice. A king doesn’t try to play a king, he is a king. Ironically, in the 1956 film version, Yul Brynner couldn’t sing a note but his characterisation was excellent. I would like to have seen Jason Scott Lee in the role during the first part of the Melbourne season, but he apparently tore a calf muscle and couldn’t continue. Lou Diamond Phillips replaced him for the remainder of the Melbourne run, so the miscasting could have been the result of having to find a replacement for Phillips for the Sydney season.
The only person I haven’t mentioned so far is Lisa McCune, as Anna Leonowens.
Just when you think that she has peaked, McCune comes out with this latest performance, which demonstrates that she could easily foot it with anyone, anywhere on the world’s stages. McCune effortlessly hits the high notes, and it couldn’t be easy dancing allegro backwards in that crinoline. Add her superb acting skills, and you have a real star. I have always enjoyed and respected McCune’s talents, and her performance in this version of The King and I more than validates that.
If you like musical theatre, go and see The King and I at the Sydney Opera House for the marvellous theatrical spectacle and to witness the superlative talents of Shu-Cheen Yu and Lisa McCune. Those two alone are worth the price of admission.