Standing ovation: Review of The King and I as musical brings Sunderland Empire audiences to their feet
The Spice Girls aren't the only ones flying the flag for girl power on Wearside this week.
The King and I has opened at the Sunderland Empire for a fortnight's run, based on the true story of social activist Anna Leonowens whose outspoken passion for equality influenced the monarchy of 1860s Siam from within.
Sumptuous sets drenched in lighting evocative of the rich hues of the Far East transport audiences to Bangkok where we meet Anna, played with commanding presence by Annalene Beechey, as she enters a brave new world with her son Louis in this musical reimagining of a true story.
She's been tasked with teaching the King of Siam's many wives, concubines and children - more than 70 and counting - in a country which faces a struggle between modernity and tradition. But far from kowtowing to the crown, she's going to do it on her terms.
This being a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, the score is luscious and we only have to wait a few minutes after curtain up before an instantly-recognisable musical theatre classic, I Whistle A Happy Tune, which is brought to life by the rich, classy vocals of Annalene.
It's a lengthy show, just short of three hours including the interval, but it helps to really explore the relationship between the King (played with warmth and great comic timing by Jose Llana) and Anna who lock horns over the role of women at court and imperialism, but ultimately forge a great friendship.
The King's army of little ones are adorable and the classroom scenes as Anna tries to teach them that Siam is not the biggest country in the world are charming to watch. It sets the scene perfectly for one of the greatest songs of the golden age of musical theatre, Getting To Know You, which doesn't disappoint.
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The King and Anna's affection for each other isn't the only love story explored in the piece: slave girl Tuptim (played with feistiness by Kamm Kunaree) who's fallen in love with Burmese scholar Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). She becomes one of the King's many brides but she makes her voice heard through a performance of The Small House of Uncle Thomas. This play within a play is a visual feast, filled with magical masks, sparkling head pieces and traditional Thai dancing. No wonder this Lincoln Center Theater production has won Tony and Olivier awards for its costumes.
The most famous costume of the show, however, is, of course, Anna's Shall We Dance Dress. Despite the costume weighing 40lbs, Annalene is remarkably light on her feet as she and the King polka around the stage in a delightful rendition of Shall We Dance - thanks to more of those stunning vocals and a brilliant orchestra who filled the theatre with a rich sound. An enchanting evening of classical theatre which brought the Empire crowd to their feet.
*The King and I is at Sunderland Empire until June 15.