As the curtains opened, the famous Rodger and Hammerstein overture played out, and the golden helm of a ship came into view. The thick Scottish accent of Captain Orton (Norbet Tolsten) filled the pregnant silence and the audience knew they were in for a treat. The strong opening warmly set the tone for Gold Coast Little Theatre’s production of golden era classic ‘The King and I’, a revival that was a clear winner, often drawing audible reactions from the audience long before the action had even begun.
Set in the mid-1800s, the show tells the story of British school teacher and widowed mother, Anna Leonowens, who takes a job as a private tutor to the many children of the King of Siam. It is in Siam that Anna, a ‘modern’ western woman of her time, is challenged by the cultural constructs of the eastern world. Most notably by the King himself, with whom she develops a strong bond, one that, for a moment, seems to border (shockingly!) on the romantic side. The production chose to focus on areas within the show that dealt with political issues such as toxic masculinity, gender inequality, racism and classism. Proving that a Rodger and Hammerstein musical can be “woke” when in the right hands.
Director Stuart Morgan’s vision brought to life the well-known tale in a way that was both respectful to its original design but also displayed a modern, often tongue-in-cheek approach to the stuffy attitudes of the period it was set. Where the book offered itself to it, Morgan leaned in on these comedic moments, making sure his audience was entertained throughout the entire evening. An example of this was in ‘The March of the Royal Siamese Children’, where each child is individually introduced to Anna, their new school teacher, in a ceremonious bow. Instead of the usual march and bow procedure, Morgan chose to give each child a cheeky quirk that set them apart from the other. One child lifted Anna’s skirt over their head, another grabbed at her necklace to play with it, while another one jumped right into her lap.
These little whims melted away at the stoic attitude of the time that “good children must be seen and not heard”, and delighted the knowing audience with a chuckle. It also introduced the character Anna as a being a more flexible and jovial personality than she is sometimes portrayed as; she was able to take each peculiarity in her stride and adapt to it seamlessly. This tone carried on into the song ‘Getting To Know You’, where the bond between Anna and each of her pupils was detailed and unique, addressing them as individuals and not just as a horde.
Musical Direction, by Ann Sparks, was kept masterfully simple, befitting such a small cast limited to a backing track accompaniment. This seemed to work quite well and was in no way obtrusive to the singer’s voices. ‘The House of Uncle Thomas’ was audibly illustrative, using only a few select members of the ensemble to detail the framework of the music with precise and distinct interjections. The cast used colourful vocal inflections to guide the tense narrative, rather than tell it, as would befit a story told from this cultural perspective.
It was also in this scene where choreographers Natasha Stenta and Gemma Boucher demonstrated their skill, using the traditional Thai artform of dance. The danger with this scene is that it’s set entirely to dance with only a narration for dialogue. However, where other productions have fallen short, Stenta and Boucher kept the narrative flowing in a way that was engaging and intense.
As Eliza (danced wonderfully by Harmony Heathcote) and her newborn escaped from the vicious slave driver Simon of Legree (danced by triple threat, Flynn Anderson), over mountains and frozen riverbeds, the choreography held the tension through slow, poised turns and controlled développé. This was juxtaposed by lighter moments of nimble hopping on flexed feet as Eliza moved from one point of her journey to the next.
It was in scenes such as this that cultural advisor, Tira Prideaux, had clearly lent her expertise to maintain cultural respect and authenticity. As an associate of the Thai Language School Wat Sangharatanaram, involved in teaching traditional Thai dance and instruments along with language, her hand in guiding the cast was evident. The movement in ‘The House of Uncle Thomas’ and ‘Vignettes and Dance’ scenes depicted the traditional dance forms of Khon and Lakhon nai, through dramatic contortions of the arms and upper body, often on flat foot and/or bent knee.
Another particular instance was in the pronunciation of the language when used by Rowena Orcullo Ryan as Lady Thiang, who seemingly mastered the Thai dialogue in scenes that required her to translate for Anna to the other wives. While other productions have often overlooked the show’s heritage, it was refreshing to see this company employ a cultural advisor to give credit to the beautiful nation that inspired this story.
Leading the magnificent production as Anna, was Kellie Wilson. Her lovely vocals, mixed with her charismatic and warm portrayal, gave the audience an approachable heroine to relate to. Key moments in her performance were ‘Getting To Know You’, where her unique relationship with her students was truly enchanting, and then later in ‘Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?’, where Wilson demonstrated an energy that gave her Anna a buoyancy and fire.
In the demanding role of The King was Malcolm McKenzie, who delivered a powerful and physically energetic performance. Where his voice sometimes struggled to keep us with the demands of the song, he gave himself over to his delivery, particularly in the song ‘A Puzzlement’, using his whole body and the entire stage to his advantage. His comedic presence was delightful, and his chemistry with leading ladies Anna and Lady Thiang was charming. He bounced well off of their ‘knowing looks’, and seemed to take genuine pleasure in tormenting co-star, Wilson. One particular touching moment was when, on his deathbed, he held Lady Thiang’s hand the entire scene, only to let go at the moment of his passing.
Golden Palm Award winning actress Rowena Orcullo Ryan, was cast in the role of Lady Thiang. She showed us all why she was deserving of her stripes, by presenting us with a deeply nuanced and poised performance. Her detailed delivery provided us with such golden nuggets as the scene when she admonished Tuptim for developing a secret romance with Lun Tha. Devoid of any jealousy or malice, but emblematic of a strict motherly figure reminding her charge of their duty. Her staunch persona was rounded out with moments of softness and vulnerability, often producing real tears in weeping for her King, most notably in her beautifully soulful rendition of ‘Something Wonderful’.
Annie Fang gave us a tempestuous and proud Tuptim. Far from any damsel in distress, Fang’s dynamic portrayal was equal parts graceful and rebellious, showing us that Tuptim was a force to be reckoned with. To add to her beautiful characterisation, Fang’s exquisite soprano voice, with its ringing vibrato, earned rapturous applause after her solo ‘My Lord and Master’ and duet with Jian Peters in ‘I Have Dreamed’.
Peters’ Lun Tha was reminiscent of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’, in that his vocals lent themselves to a pleasant modern musical theatre sound. The audience easily believed in his vulnerability, as his wonderful facial expressions showed us a gorgeous sense of longing for his stolen moments with Tuptim.
Prince Chulalongkorn was played by Flynn Anderson who offered a level of depth that can often get lost in the grand scheme of the show. The character is positioned to display the greatest amount of growth out of everyone, and Morgan’s casting and direction seemed to explore this to a new level. Portraying a boy on the verge of manhood, indoctrinated with attitudes of toxic masculinity, but who also possesses a strong sense of duty to his people. The Prince’s entitlement is challenged when he encounters Anna and observes his father’s growing respect for her. This then influences him to become a more compassionate and approachable ruler. Anderson did a brilliant job of demonstrating this journey, and it is a credit to his talent and maturity that he could show so much scope in so few scenes.
In ‘The March of the Royal Siamese Children’, Anderson strutted on stage, head held high, and refused to bow to the new school mistress, and barely acknowledged his own mother, Lady Thiang. His disrespect for Anna in the school room was palpable, showing a blatant disregard for her personal space when she dared suggest that Siam was a smaller country than the others on the world map.
His attitude towards Anna’s son Louis (shared by both Flynn Nowlan and Ryder Calbert), he played the role as an overbearing bully, in one scene going so far as to push him out of the way. As the show progressed, we witnessed him befriend Louis in the scene ‘A Puzzlement (Reprise)’. Particularly heart warming was when he showed his newfound respect for his mother by hugging her. While the books does lend itself to this journey already, the bold choice of making Prince Chulalongkorn intimidating and somewhat menacing at the top of the show, made his development unmistakable and gave the story a wonderful payoff at the end.
Rounding out this wonderful cast was a great cast of supporting leads, child actors and adult ensemble. They all showed strength in their own individual characterisations, dance abilities, and singing. The ‘March of the Royal Siamese Children’ was adorable and allowed each performer to own their moment, which was very much appreciated by the audience.
Another Golden Palm Award winner of this production was wardrobe mistress Shirley Whitehouse who used authentic Thai pieces in her costuming. Bringing a sense of luxury to each scene, she mixed simple textiles and basic structures with rich gold embellishments. She was aided in this pursuit of opulence with wig mistress Ann-Britt Riget, whose intricately designed head pieces were truly breathtaking in the way they captured the light.
Set design was undertaken by director Stuart Morgan, proving himself to be more than a one-trick pony. His intelligent design incorporated columns on trucks that could be easily and quietly moved, allowing set changes to bleed into the narrative unnoticed. Instead of a traditional backdrop, Morgan opted for a built-in sliding door, providing the cast another entry point, but also giving a sense of life outside the palace walls.
Overall, this was a brilliant production that Gold Coast Little Theatre can be truly proud of. With a captivating and talented cast, a well-known score and a stunning design concept, this show was bound to be a winner. But on top of that, this production dared to be interesting by drawing attention to issues often forgotten when portraying a Roger and Hammerstein musical. It is for that reason that this show will not be soon forgotten. Et cetera, et cetera and so forth.
Unfortunately, ‘The King and I’ has now closed, playing until the 7 December, 2019. To find out what else is on offer at Gold Coast Little Theatre visit https://gclt.com.au.
Photography by Shane Caddaye
This article has been edited by Shane Webb.