Review: The King And I (Opera Australia / Sydney Opera House)

thekingandiVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Sep 7 – Nov 1, 2014
Music: Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II (based on Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon)
Director: Christopher Renshaw
Cast: Lisa McCune, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Shu-Cheen Yu, Jenny Liu, Adrian Li Donni, Marty Rhone, John Adam
Image by Brian Geach

Theatre review
There is no denying the contentiousness of casting a performer who is not of Asian heritage to play the role of the King of Siam. It is a very rare occasion that a main stage production in Australia features a specifically Asian character in its lead, and to deprive Asian actors of the opportunity to headline a show of this grand scale is unfortunate. On the other hand, we are a culture that believes in meritocracy, where the best candidate for the job should win the part. Instead of background, we look at ability, and in the case of Teddy Tahu Rhodes who is King, in the Sydney season of The King And I, he proves himself a force to be reckoned with. Handsome, imposing and astonishingly talented, Rhodes is in many ways, perfect for the role. His humour is confident and sharp, and his rich baritone voice is immensely satisfying. Rhodes has charisma in abundance, which is key to his successful portrayal of royalty and chauvinism.

Anna is played by the endearing Lisa McCune, who is surprisingly animated in her depiction of the English language teacher from Wales. Her voice is not the most powerful in the cast, but her interpretation of classics like Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance is thoroughly accomplished, and her enthusiasm for the role is more than evident. McCune’s Anna is a delicate figure, but her energy is consistently buoyant, and her performance is compelling and enjoyable. The production features outstanding supporting players, including soprano Jenny Liu as Tuptim who provides the most ethereal and emotional singing in the production. Liu’s ability to convey passion and angst is a great asset to the show, and she embodies the tragedy of the plot effectively. The role of Lady Thiang is performed by Shu-Cheen Yu who delights with a stunning theatricality derived from traditional Chinese forms. Her use of physical and facial expressions is a rare treat on Australian stages, which simply must not be missed.

Designers never share top billing with cast members, but this is a production with a visual glory that will be remembered for years to come. Brian Thomson’s scenic design is luxurious and exquisite, with Nigel Levings’ lighting providing further variation to scenes. We never stray far from the King’s palace, but the stage looks and feels different in every scene, and nearly every change is awe inspiring. The glamour and vibrancy of Roger Kirk’s costumes are second to none, with every ensemble conveying beauty and romance. Choreography of the legendary segment The Small House of Uncle Thomas by Susan Kikuchi (based on Jerome Robbins’ original work) is sublime. Watching the famed sequence emerge from the familiar film into reality, in such fine form is a dream come true. Christopher Renshaw serves as director of the production, bringing with him great amounts of flair and elegance, especially in bigger scenes with groups of children and servants. There are always nuances to discover and flourishes to admire in the background. Renshaw handles the writing’s awkward (and dated) racial dynamics well. Jokes are made out of the clashing and discord between races, but caricatures are toned down significantly so that characters escape obvious degradation.

In spite of the productions efforts however, we cannot escape the core message of The King And I, which pits two cultures against each other and concludes at a point where the Siamese King experiences a dramatic transformation, while the Caucasian Anna remains the same person. The underlying message is clear; one side requires improvement and the other can stay unchanged. Furthermore, the Asian character’s evolution needs to be in line with the Westerner’s standards of taste and acceptability in order for the show to find resolution. It is understandable that the esteemed nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work is resistant to radical alteration, and the fact that the story is based on famous memoirs places psychological constraints on artistic licenses, but creativity in the arts should know no bounds, especially when it takes on the responsibility to improve ideologies and advance civilisations.