Douglas Mayo reviews Bartlett Sher’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I at the London Palladium.
The King and I
3 July 2018
Following a triumphant season at New York’s Lincoln Centre, Rodgers And Hammerstein’s The King and I has taken residency at the London Palladium in a new lavish production helmed by Bartlett Sher. One of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s big five musicals (the others being Oklahoma! Carousel, South Pacific and The Sound Of Music) it is a rich example of two of the greatest of musical theatre writers in their prime.
Based on Margaret Langdon’s 1944 novel Anna And The King Of Siam, the musical tells the story of Anna Leonowens, a Welsh schoolteacher hired by the Siamese King as part of a drive to modernise his country. For a musical written in 1951 it more than holds up balancing the timeless score with a story of contrasting cultures.
Where Bartlett Sher excels is in his commendable attention to the original material, not merely slavishly replicating original productions this is a new production which justifies its existence many times over. Michael Yeargen’s stunning set sits beautifully within the London Palladium. Looking palatial it none-the-less allows for the large cast costumed to perfection by Catherine Zuber to inhabit it creating a credible palace for this King. Donald Holder’s exquisite lighting picks up on the wonderfully diverse colour palette in the sets and costumes and adds new layers of subtlety. Lavish!
Played with bombastic exuberance and a touch of mischief by Ken Watanabe, this King is a worthy successor to those who have come before him. Watanabe commands the large Palladium stage, there is no doubting his authority at any point in the proceedings.
Kelli O’Hara is sublime as Anna, who in 1862 found herself widowed and in need of a means of supporting herself. O’Hara imbues Rodger’s timeless melodies with lyrical subtlety and dramatic honesty that makes her every moment on stage a joy. O’Hara truly plays the strengths of this remarkable woman.
It’s when O’Hara and Watanabe are together that this production really catches fire. The chemistry between these two world-class actors is palpable. Watching respect develop between Anna and The King is a joy, especially at a time when tolerance seems to be sorely lacking in our modern world. When the King talks about building a wall around Siam, you more than notice an uneasiness in the audience as you realise that even the monarch is aware of the folly of such a notion.
The backstage politics of the palace are played out by Takao Osawa as the Kralahome, Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang and an abundance of wives and children. Osawa and Mori give these two characters dramatic depth that perhaps was underplayed ion previous incarnations. In the hands of two such capable actors, the complexity of the King deepens.
No production of The King and I would be complete without its children and this production is no exception. Joyful but never over-played, they retain an air of innocence that only adds to the warmth of this production.
Dean John Wilson and Na-Young Jeon are well cast as the young lovers in this piece. The highlight of the second act is the superb ballet The Small House Of Uncle Thomas originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins. This staging taking into account modern dance presentation is a glory to behold.
I was most impressed in this production with the performance of Jon Chew as Prince Chulalongkorn. Questioning, alert and aware of his future role in the world I found Chew’s Prince a character intrigiung and beautifully rendered.
This is the second time in a few weeks that I have heard orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett here played by a stunning show orchestra conducted by Stephen Ridley. Lush and majestic, it is wonderful to here this glorious score in all it’s glory.
My most sincere praise must go to Scott Lehrer and his sound team on this production. The King and I boasts the finest sound I have heard in the theatre in recent times.
This production of The King and I is the Rolls Royce of theatrical revivals. Created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, two of musical theatre’s master craftsmen and reinterpreted here by Bartlett Sher and his team of extra-ordinary craftsmen, it is as relevant and entertaining as ever it was, and ready to be enjoyed by a new generation of theatre lovers.