People may instantly say “Yul Brynner” when you mention The King and I and they would be right to do so as he played the King of Siam more than 2,500 times during his life, including the 1965 film version. But at the London Palladium the show is back, last seen with Elaine Paige on the very stage in 2000.
American director Bartlett Sher had already resurrected South Pacific in his highly acclaimed 2008 production, so when he turned to The King and I for Broadway’s Lincoln Center in 2015 the stakes were high. But here he has created something wonderful and we are treated to the original leads here in London at the Palladium: Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe.
Based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, it explores how she became the teacher of the Siamese King Mongkut’s children in the 1860’s. With the British in India, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, and the French in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Mongkut was facing the threat of colonisation on all sides, and the King sought out a British teacher in order to modernise and westernise his kingdom.
A battle of wills ensues, but Anna and her stormy employer eventually join forces in order to present Siam as a civilised nation – and therefore one off-limits to would-be colonial invaders. Of course, Anna is herself a colonial symbol, come to impart Western wisdom. But Sher’s even-handed production presents it more as a cultural exchange, one in which the benefits and absurdities of both realms are readily apparent. The Act II number “Western People Funny” (which has been dropped from some productions) firmly places the joke on the Victorian women forced into hooped skirts and agonising heels. In addition, the education of the King and his court has its tortuous moments – the strain of becoming caught between two worlds.
It’s a huge show and an opulent production on a grand stage, with Michael Yeargan’s burnished gold sets suggesting Mongkut’s palace and Catherine Zuber’s design for Anna’s hoop skirt taking up most of the stage! Supported by a full-blooded orchestra making a beguiling case for this classic score. It opens with a giant boat steaming into view and even set changes become opportunities for well-honed dance numbers. On the whole, Sher uses spectacle judiciously for story, demonstrating the scale of the palace, its unified inhabitants and a King fuelled by the performative reverence of his people.
Kelli O’Hara has collaborated with Sher on many occasions, earning three Tony nominations on productions with him, as well as a win for this show in 2015, she really is wonderful as Anna: full of sweetness and light when she’s teaching the King’s adorable children, but able to bring a resilient edge to her role when sparring with the King. Combined with an operatic soprano voice that is a masterclass of strength and precision, she’s like the Julie Andrews of the modern era (indeed there’s a lot in the role of Anna that presages Maria in The Sound of Music). It’s a treat to see her on a West End stage finally.
Japanese film actor Ken Watanabe is physically dynamic and his witty, intelligent King wrestles believably with the challenges of leadership. However, his enunciation is erratic – particularly in the exacting “A Puzzlement”, which is unfortunately followed by Anna teaching a lesson in diction! In fine support, Na-Young Jeon and Dean John-Wilson provide tender harmonies as the secret lovers, Naoko Mori as the King’s unhappy concubine and senior wife Lady Thiang eloquently expresses a more pragmatic affection. There’s detail in every supporting role – I particularly enjoyed William Mychael Lee’s increasingly perturbed royal secretary.
The sense this production gives is that Anna and the King are not romantically in love, but instead form a strong friendship based on mutual learning and respect. Shall We Dance is joyous, it is not romantic but speaks to the shows complexity: the ambiguity deepens their relationship.
The production is sluggish at points, but it’s great to see one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most complex works reappraised: opulently, intelligently and with love. Revivals will not always say what you would have them say. But now and then they will be Something Wonderful.
The King and I is at the London Palladium until 29th September 2018.