Benet Catty Productions

The King and I (WE 2018)

Aug 1, 2018

London Palladium

18 years since its last major London production, The King and I returns to the London Palladium. As in its last incarnation (featuring Elaine Paige’s last major musical theatre role), this production is an import of an award-winning Broadway revival. Unlike that version, it has brought its American stars with it.

The King and I may be a dusty old war horse, but the sumptuous staging it receives here from director Bartlett Sher polishes it into as good a production of the piece as one can ever imagine seeing, emotionally richer than the 2000 Palladium staging and visually more sumptuous than James Hammerstein (Oscar’s son) achieved with his 1991 Sadler’s Wells production.

The King and I is, at least to my mind, the lesser of the big five Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. Oklahoma! is the most fun. South Pacific is the most important. Carousel has the best music. The Sound of Music brings the most tears.

The King and I, meanwhile, only really has two or three classic songs, it’s essentially a two-hander with a cast of forty, and not much happens. You rarely mind.

Based on a novel which was itself based on the true story of the relationship between Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Sian in the early 1860s, The King and I sees an English teacher teaching some of the numerous children of the dictatorial ruler as part of his attempt to modernize his country in a time of big historical change. As she educates his children, he grudgingly comes to educate himself in the ways of women, the world, and love. Their relationship remains unconsummated except with a dance (this is a musical after all), but the effect of their relationship on each of them changes both.

There is little by way of danger across the show’s three hours. The King quite often shouts or sulks. A naughty child runs through his legs once. And Anna worries about whether to ask for a pay rise. There’s one moment of crisis involving a minor character about ten minutes from the end, but then it’s resolved in four minutes flat. The closing scene, though, in which the King’s heir makes small but significant adjustments to how he is to be addressed, movingly gives a sense of a culture changing one inch at a time.

The reason to see The King and I is the warmth it generates between its two leads. Kelli O’Hara, who won a Tony Award for her performance, brings her operatic soprano to Anna matched by an understated dignity and an impressive English accent. Ken Watanabe, as The King, is absolutely charming and funny even when being obnoxious and preening like a 19th century Donald Trump. His accent is challenging. His only solo “It’s a Puzzlement” – in any case the weakest song in the show – he performs with seemingly no consonants whatsoever, but it all adds to the mixture of narcissist and child that he embodies so charmingly. There’s strong support from Na-Young Jeon and Ruthie Ann Miles, who between them sing the only two famous songs not given to Anna (“My Lord and Master” and “Something Wonderful” respectively) and Edward Baker Duly plays a genially understated couple of English aristocratic roles. All three actors also originated their roles on Broadway.

The choreography, by Christoper Gutella, is based on the original by the legendary Jerome Robbins whose finger snaps did so much to create West Side Story. The precision of the dances and the constant bowing and scraping is as impressive as the (too) long second act ballet, beautifully sharpened by Donald Holder’s lighting. The design by Michael Yeargan is striking but economic, with a shimmery curtain periodically being pulled across the stage to mask scene changes. The arrival of the boat in the opening moments is a stunning set-piece, made no less thrilling by coming so early in the evening. And the sound design by Scott Lehrer achieves clarity rather than just amplification.

This is not a show for everyone. Tastes have moved on since 1951, and the sense of cultural imperialism which is at the heart of the story is hard to completely set aside in 2018. But I didn’t care. Rodgers and Hammerstein really knew how to give people a good evening out, and, with the help of Bartlett Sher – whose production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was so misconceived a couple of years ago – The King and I is given a luxury production in the most famous theatre in London.

“When?!” splutters the king in one of his rages at Anna. “Now! When else? Now is always the best time.” With summer coming up, and the air conditioning in the Palladium being so pleasant, you should take his advice.

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