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Unquestionably one of the greatest shows from a bygone but golden age of musicals, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King And I is making a welcome return to Birmingham this week. 

Adapted from Margaret Landon’s bestselling novel, which in turn was based on Anna Leonowen’s memoirs chronicling her experiences in 1860s Siam (now Thailand) teaching the children of the Siamese King, the stage musical premiered in 1951. So popular did it prove that a mere five years later it received the Hollywood treatment, with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner memorably performing the lead roles in the still-adored film. 

Boasting a soundtrack bursting with heartwarming and heart-rending songs, exquisitely brought to life with fun and beautiful dance routines, this latest touring version further benefits from simple yet effective sets and detailed and stunning costumes - especially Anna’s voluminous hooped skirts!

Maria Coyne expertly stepped in for Helen George as Anna Leonowens in last night’s show, with Broadway performer Darren Lee playing the part of King Mongkut. Together they were outstanding and generated a compelling on-stage chemistry.

Coyne played Anna brilliantly; as a strong, self-assured woman who is willing to stand up for what she believes in. She is frustrated by the King’s arrogance and the subservience he expects from his subjects, including herself! 

Lee was equally impressive as the stubborn, impetuous but ultimately warm-hearted King, whose culture clashes so profoundly with Anna’s that at times it causes great friction between the two of them. 

The pair shared the stage for most of the show and worked well together. A favourite scene for me - presented alongside the well-known song, Shall We Dance - saw Anna teaching the King the polka, which he then led with great exuberance!

Another highlight was The March Of The Siamese Children, when the King introduces Anna to some of his many offspring... 

The show’s ‘play within a play’, meanwhile - a reenactment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin produced to impress English dignitaries visiting Siam - was witty, exotic, evocative and splendidly choreographed. 

Special mention should also go to three other cast members. Two of them - Amelia Kinu Muus, who played Tuptim (instead of Marienella Phillips), and Dean John-Wilson, who played her forbidden lover, Lun Tha - created some real vocal magic between them, especially in their stunning rendition of I Have Dreamed... 

And then there was Cezarah Bonner, who played the King’s head-wife, Lady Thiang. Not only was her voice simply spectacular, but her moving performance of Something Wonderful - when she appeals to Anna to help the deeply troubled King - was truly an experience to behold. The song’s haunting lyrics explain the simple yet complex relationship which the two women have with the King, and the reason why both are ultimately willing to support him in his heartfelt efforts to be a great monarch.

A story about love, respect and equality that surely resonates as powerfully today as ever it did, The King And I is one of musical theatre’s greatest triumphs. If this latest touring version is anything to go by, the show remains in robust health more than 70 years after its premiere.

5 stars

Reviewed by Sue Hull at The Alexandra, Birmingham, Wed 1 March.

You can catch the production at Birmingham’s The Alexandra until Saturday (4 March) and at Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Tues 30 May - Sat 3 Jun.