REVIEW: The King And I Is A Lovely, Lavish Love Story And Musical Bonbon

Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the king of Siam.

The King and I

Sydney Opera House, until November 1.

Cheat sheet
What: A perennial, romantic and much-loved musical.
Who: Lisa McCune, Teddy Tahu-Rhodes, Marty Rhone, Shu-Cheen Yu.
How much: $69-$349
Why go: The fabulous costumes, sets and Lisa McCune.

Before she won over a nation as an affable copper, Lisa McCune trained as a singer. Her teenage theatrical debut was as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. She’s not a soapie starlet trying to turn an extra quid in pop, but rather returning to her first love and it shows.

This is McCune’s show, as the applause when she first appears on stage demonstrates. There are moments when her soprano voice floods the Joan Sutherland theatre with absolute joy, like unwrapping your favourite after-dinner chocolate. Yes, it’s fragile and tentative at the ends of her range, but when McCune’s in her sweet spot, it’s enough to have The Voice judges spinning around. She fills the Opera House with her warmth and the audience loves it and her for it. When she sings the show’s signature tune, Getting To Know You, I suspect everyone watching believes she’s serenading them.

McCune is Australia’s Julie Andrews and it seems she was born for the role of Anna Leonowens, the outspoken, widowed English schoolteacher who arrives in 1860s Siam with her young son to teach several dozen of the King’s children from his several wives.

Watching McCune twirl around the stage in shimmering, billowing crinoline outfits is pleasure enough – a testament to both the costumer’s craft and her own deft mobility – but she also does a fine job as the feisty Anna, prim when required, yet embracing and warm, with a delightful comic touch too.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a Kiwi, channels his inner Yul Brynner, the late actor synonymous with the King’s role, in his erect, stern, hands-on-hips posture. He brings two important talents to the task: a bare chest that no doubt plays to the fantasies of many in the audience, and, on the rare occasions it’s required, his sonorous baritone voice. However, acting isn’t a strong point. He’s stiff, but more in a gawkish than regal manner, and his accent, which seems to favour the staccato of an inscrutable Chinese emperor over a Siamese lilt, occasionally meanders into sounding like a Mafia Don.

Nonetheless, the duo tackle their encounters with gusto and of course the sexual tension between the King and Anna also carries the subtext of Rhodes and McCune’s offstage dalliance. When they whirl around the stage in the polka of Shall We Dance, the audience nearly jumps to their feet to cheer them on, yet I suspect Rhodes’ awkward dancing is not all acting.

Lisa McCune as Anna and Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King of Siam

This production began in Adelaide in 1991 and has been schlepping its way around Broadway and London to great success ever since. It’s a crowd-pleasing co-production by Opera Australia, but there’s no harm in that. My favourite part has changed little since Brynner’s day – the play within the play: The Small House of Uncle Thomas, late in the second act. It’s an energetic mix of dramatic choreography, more lavish costumes and jaunty singing that injects energy just as the tale begins to flag.

And while a few people remarked to me about the racism inherent in Rodgers And Hammerstein’s 63-year-old musical, I don’t think it’s anything too dark or negative. A younger audience. especially women, will be struck more by the sexism. The science-obsessed king knows a modernised future looms, yet cannot help falling back on his sexist old ways. The counter, however, is that Anna is the well-mannered first blush of modern feminism and happy to give as good as she gets to the King – in a manner that Thailand’s current, century-old lèse majesté normally have foreigners jailed for (and do) even in this era.

McCune and a bunch of precocious children staying up quite late on a school night.

Older audience members will enjoy seeing ’70s pop star Marty Rhone – who played Lun Tha alongside Brynner 35 years ago – as the stern Kralahome, although he never gets to test his singing voice. Opera Australia subscribers will take comfort from company regular Shu-Cheen Yu’s elegant performance as the king’s long-suffering and loyal head wife, Lady Thiang, while Jenny Liu also delivers some glorious moments as Tuptim, the slave-turned-gift wife whose heart is elsewhere.

And then there are the show stealers: several small children representing the king’s 70-odd progeny, who flit about the stage, occasionally serving up sweet moments of comic sunshine. They’re impossibly cute and that charm is a quintessential part of The King and I’s appeal.

This isn’t great art, but it is great fun.