The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the Novel, Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Lincoln Center Theater
London Palladium

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe Credit: Matthew Murphy
Kelli O'Hara and the Company of The King and I Credit: Matthew Murphy
The Company of The King and I Credit: Matthew Murphy

When New York’s Lincoln Center Theater revives a classic musical, it does so with considerable style. That certainly applies to Bartlett Sher’s 2015 production of The King and I, which has arrived to delight London Palladium audiences over the summer.

Set in 1862 and based on a true story, the musical addresses a culture clash between East and West, each represented by a strong-willed character who will not give way without a fight.

A striking opening owes much to set designer Michael Yeargan, who has a pleasing tendency to keep life simple, and features a paddle steamer bringing the widowed Anna Leonowens and her son Louis to Siam (now Thailand). There, the dignified British lady is to take up new duties as governess and teacher to the reputedly unpredictable King of Siam’s countless children.

Immediately, she feels obliged to cover over her concerns using a tried and trusted method, “I Whistle a Happy Tune”. That is enough to strengthen the backbone but also prove to the audience that Kelli O’Hara, who won a Tony on Broadway for the role, has an outstanding singing voice good enough to have graced the Metropolitan Opera House in a faultless debut in The Merry Widow.

Anna may be a tough cookie but she is quickly advised that crossing the King could be fatal. Another American import, Ken Watanabe, may not have her singing skills but is an expressive comic actor who cleverly manages to show that an omnipotent and omniscient King can still feel a degree of insecurity however many wives and children he may have, all kitted out in beautiful costumes designed by Catherine Zuber.

The bulk of the evening is spent observing frequently uncomfortable negotiations between the teacher’s English sensibilities and the King’s desire to maintain his own power and his country’s cultural traditions. This leads to much charming humour, as well as some interesting observations about differences many of which still seem as apparent today as they did 150 years ago.

Eventually, something close to a romance develops between the central pairing, although neither would describe it as such despite their closeness during the duet “Shall We Dance?”. This is mirrored much more passionately by a wife imported by the King from Burma, Na-Young Jeon’s Tuptim, and her handsome secret lover Lun Tha played by Dean John-Wilson, whose duet “We Kiss in a Shadow” delightfully expresses their predicament.

Visually, the highlight of the evening is undoubtedly a long scene in which Tuptim recreates Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in an oriental version choreographed by Christopher Gatelli based on the original version from Jerome Robbins.

A lavish production that creates an authentic Eastern feel complete with due pomp and circumstance is graced by a team of children, the youngest no more than six or seven, every one of whom played their part to perfection and will have won the hearts of impressed visitors on opening night.

However, the main attraction of this light comedy romance lies in a series of musical standards delivered with passion and enthusiasm by the whole cast and most particularly the wonderful Kelli O’Hara, making a sparkling West End debut that could well win further awards.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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