Rogers and Hammerstein's fifth stage collaboration took them away from their run of Americana classics into the culture clash between a Victorian school teacher and a Thai despot. Yet it's also where the Rogers and Hammerstein formula seems to stick in place in a little - there's the romantic subplot with the unhappy ending from "South Pacific" back again, there's the older lady with the big song (a la Nettie Fowler from "Carousel and Bloody Mary from South Pacific), and there's even a rejected song from "South Pacific" with new lyrics ("Suddenly Lucky" became "Getting to Know You"). No wonder the Australian Opera decided to recycle their South Pacific leads.
The problem, of course, is that Teddy Tahu Rhodes may be qualified to play a French plantation owner but racially and dramatically he's wildly mis-cast as the King of Siam. The role isn't written to take advantage of his fine operatic voice, but instead is vastly in need of a particular pranking sense of charisma which Rhodes flatly doesn't really possess. His performance tends to consist of stomping around looking fairly dopey for most of the run of the show, which just doesn't work. In a show that largely consists of a battle of wits between the two leads, Rhodes looks weapon-less.
It's a pity because a lot of the production around him is pretty darn good. This is a return of the 23-year old 1991 revival that launched in Sydney with Hayley Mills and Tony Marinyo, and the production design by Brian Thompson (sets) and Roger Kirk (costumes) remains gorgeously lavish. Lisa McCune is suitably uptight and governessy in all the right ways, And Jerome Robbins' ballet for "Small House of Uncle Thomas" is a modern classic for a reason, it's funny and heart rending and dramatic in all the right ways.
But, dammit, there's a big fat hole where the King should be in this production and the rest of the production just doesn't quite hold up around him. It leads to awkward questions about the slightly clunky construction (by not being very invested in the King, the logic of why he suddenly becomes conveniently ill for the finale becomes more dubious - dramatically, it's meant to be that he has been emotionally destroyed, but Rhodes comes nowhere near selling that).Which means what we have is a very pretty, functional object that just doesn't work.