In 1862, Anna Leonowens arrives with her son Louis at the King of Siam’s court as the governess to his children. Teaching the King the ways of the western world, Anna finds herself learning a thing or two about the nobility of Siamese culture. It’s a simple, not a strong, storyline. But a fizzing script makes up for it, delivered with brio by Marilyn Moore and Martin Gaisford as Anna and the King.
For a musical, The King and I waxes lyrical on some pretty big themes – the role of women, the emancipation of slaves, political posturing and cultural identity. An inconsequential subplot in which a young girl flees the court to be with her lover adds a dash of operatic romance. But otherwise, this is a comedy of manners – with some rather famous songs done with relish and swept along by a quality orchestra.
Best of all, though, is the brilliance of the sets, costumes and choreography. Pulling off one imaginative set-piece after another, this is a visually splendid production. You’ll easily believe you’re in the court of Siam. Silken costumes and swishing skirts - sheeny and colourful - weave among backdrops of widescreen proportions.
Oriental choreography adds an exotic air. And watch out for a breathtaking ballet-version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – a play within the play – danced with impressive poise. The surrealism works wonders – rivers and snow, hounds and hunters, are creatively brought to life.
Of the many songs, the standouts are beautifully done. The presentation of the kids to Anna, and the follow-up Getting to Know You, are the highlight of the first half: a marvel of choreography, the kids acquitting themselves with aplomb.
Stately-paced, The King and I is a nostalgic experience, with particular appeal to older audiences – who’ll recall the 50s film, relish the musical strains of a bygone era, and coo over the kids. If not a family-musical, it’s a family production - with young Peter Moore every inch the Prince and playing opposite his real-life mother (as Anna).
Tinny microphones made an occasional blip. But strong central performances, quality music and dazzling visuals are what you’ll remember. With a cadre of kids and soaring sets, so much could have gone wrong: Oxford Operatic Society took a chance and won, thanks to a well-rehearsed cast and a thoroughly creative crew.