Theatre in Wales

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Aberystwyth Summer Musical

The King and I- Aberystwyth Arts Centre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August 13, 2009
Aberystwyth Summer Musical by The King and I- Aberystwyth Arts Centre “The King and I” was seen a couple of months back in London’s Albert Hall and got somewhat lost in that cavernous setting. Aberystwyth has extended its stage for its summer production and director Anthony Williams has flooded it to the brim with brilliant colour. Richard Rodgers’ score is admittedly not that of “Carousel” or “South Pacific”- it was written as a vehicle for a star with a limited range- but a composer of genius in second gear is still better than almost any musical writer of today. “We Kiss in a Shadow”, in the hands of Jennifer Tanarez and Makakilo Ancheta, is worth the ticket price alone.

Structurally “the King and I” is something of a slow burner, the early scenes more display than drama. By the fourth scene it is getting an uncanny resemblance to the same team’s “Sound of Music” of eight years later. Tutor Mrs Anna is a stand-in for a sugary Maria, the King a variation on frosty Captain von Trapp. Even the British lurking in nearby Singapore are a kind of surrogate for the threatening pre-Anschluss Nazis just across the border from Salzburg. Happily, the narrative switches gear and the drama becomes more than just whether Mrs Anna will get a little house of her own or not. By the end there is acid, an offstage death, and like “South Pacific”, some substantial dramatic meat beneath the surface.

Steve Denton’s design for the Bangkok palace sets a severe Buddha, fifteen feet high, above a cunning reflective floor. It stands for the plot itself, the tussle between tradition and modernity. Iestyn Giffiths’ lighting suffuses the set with a tinged golden hue. When illicit lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha meet, they do so under the spectral light of a giant white moon cut across by an angular Hokusai tree branch.

I had never seen “The King and I” before, neither on stage nor film so was entirely unprepared for the ballet “The Small House of Thomas.” Harriet Beecher Stowe is refracted, astonishingly, through an Asian cultural prism. A kneeling Princess Tuptim presents it in thick white Kabuki make-up. The freezing of the Ohio River for Lisa Bridge’s Eliza to make her balletic escape is a visual coup. Director Anthony Williams is his own choreographer and on this night stood in as slave-owner Simon Legree, re-cast as a vengeful devil.

The scene was a reminder that the very young Stephen Sondheim came under the wing of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Exactly twenty-five years later he featured the same arresting Asian-Western melange in his own “Pacific Overtures.” Hammerstein’s lyrics are also a pointed reminder that few today have inherited his level of lyrical panache. “Bigamy” rhymes with “prig of me”, “civilise us” with “advise us”. There are triple rhymes like “degrees/ knees/ please.”
The six-strong band under musical director Michael Morwood is placed offstage. The gain is that the cast of thirty-six gets to utilise the performance space to its full. The loss is that the physical production of the music is absent. I would have welcomed the visual presence of Gethin Jones’ percussion. Aberystwyth’s Rachel Crane is given a solo, also sung offstage. The lack of her physical presence on stage behind that great voice was a definite loss.

Once again Arts Centre Director Alan Hewson has attracted star quality leads to Aberystwyth. Marcus Cunningham, barefoot and bare-chested, ripples with charisma and the complexity of the character of the King. Shona Lindsay wears a luscious cream concoction of a dress for “Shall We Dance” and is simply radiant in that key number. In the opening quieter verses of “Hello, Young Lovers” her phrasing and soprano had to contest with the Curse of the Crinkling Sweet Packet from the auditorium. One day theatre-lovers, audiences and management alike, are going to rise up against the small but growing army of pernicious texters, e-mailers and chocolate-chompers.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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