Step backstage at Sunderland Empire as award-winning The King and I arrives on Wearside

Weighing in at 40lbs with a circumference of 14ft and valued at £15,000, the Shall We Dance dress from King & And I has to be one of the largest frocks in musical theatre. So big, in fact, it has to be kept backstage as it doesn’t fit through any dressing room doorways.

Thursday, 6th June 2019, 9:25 am
Stars of the King and I musical Jose Llana and Annelene Beechey, at the Sunerland Empire, with Coco Hu, centre.

Tasked with dancing the polka in this behemoth of a dress each night is Annalene Beechey as leading lady Anna, but she says all the necessary massages and strength building yoga to keep her calves from seizing up are worth it to create the moment everyone waits for in this classic musical.

“You can hear the audience take an intake of breath when I appear in the dress for the first time,” Annalene explained backstage at Sunderland Empire. “As the body of the song starts you can hear them start to sing along and it’s lovely to hear. It’s a score which means so much to people, it’s one they grew up with and now they’re sharing it with their children.”

Stars of the King and I musical Jose Llana and Annelene Beechey, at the Sunerland Empire, with Coco Hu, centre.

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The show-stopping dress is one of many sumptuous costumes, including gilded head dresses, rich saris and fantastical smocks, used in the revival which were designed by Catherine Zuber who won a Tony Award and Olivier Award for her majestic creations.

They help to transport audiences to the exotic world of 1860s Bangkok where Annalene’s character, a British schoolteacher, is brought to Siam by the king to teach his many wives and children. Along the way, they forge an unlikely friendship to the tune of well-known songs, such as Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance.

One of the biggest shows at the Empire this year, it’s running for a fortnight and Annalene says it’s an honour to be part of an award-winning production.

“It’s an incredible role and one that doesn’t come along very often,” said Annalene, who also played the role on the West End stage. “Vocally and emotionally, there’s so much for you to get your teeth stuck into as an actress. It’s such a simple story at heart, but a beautiful one and because the action takes place over a relatively short time frame we can really explore the relationship between these characters.

The show stopping Shall We Dance dress in action

“This very much is the West End and Broadway version brought to Sunderland, nothing has been trimmed. We have an excellent orchestra who create a luscious sound that really supports the vocals of the score.”

Annalene, who performs alongside Jose Llana, direct from the Broadway show, as The King, says playing a role based on a real woman adds another dimension to her portrayal.

“In preparation for the role I read some of her diaries and the novel by Margaret Landon, she said. “She was such a brave and courageous woman, going to a country which was so unexplored. I’m not sure I would be brave enough to do that. Obviously this is a musical, so the story has been romanticised a little and is loosely based on the true story, but you still feel a responsibility to the people it’s based on and I feel very honoured to play her.”

•The King and I is at Sunderland Empire until June 15. Tickets from the Box Office on High Street West, from the Ticket Centre on 0844 871 3022 or online at

There are 300 costumes used in the show

The King & I Costume Facts

•500 books of gold leaf have been used in the scenery cloth.

•There are over one thousand metres of braid in the show.

•There are 22,000 flowers on the flower hangers in the garden, each was made by hand.

Annalene Beechey with one of her other dresses backstage at Sunderland Empire

•The fans and singing bowls required in the show have had to travel 5870 miles as they are sourced from Japan.

•There are 58 prop books in the show including a very large Bible.

•The production features 300 hundred costumes using over 2500 metres of fabric.

The intricate head pieces
Behind the scene of Sunderland Empire's The King and I.
Neil Johnson from the company with the hand made flower wall