If a production of The King and I so wanted, it could have the ‘March of the Royal Siamese Children’ go on and on, demonstrating that the King of Siam really did have as many children as he claimed to have had, sleeping with a substantial number of women based at his court. Here, in this production transferred to the London Palladium from New York’s Lincoln Center Theater, the King (Ken Watanabe) tells Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara), a newly arrived schoolteacher, that she will only be tutoring the children in the King’s favour. This keeps the ‘March’ to a reasonable length – and also means Anna is not teaching an impossibly large class.
If only the same sort of trimming were applied to ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas‘, one of those literal translations of book titles. My favourite mistranslation occurred during a French lesson at school, where a classmate and I managed to translate ‘Les Raisins de la Colère’ as ‘The Angry Grapes’ instead of The Grapes of Wrath. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to give the book referenced in this show its proper name, is summarised in a show-within-the-show but altered in such a way as to suit the narrative purposes of Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon), a slave from Burma who becomes one of the King’s many wives. But unlike in Hamlet, where the king calls a premature end to the moral lesson dressed up as a play, this one just rattles on and on.
Anyway, the leads in this production are well cast (as is almost everyone else). Watanabe’s somewhat mischievous King keeps a seemingly deliberate distance from O’Hara’s Anna, which does at least go along with his preference for all things scientific. O’Hara’s voice is sublime when she sings, and when she speaks, there’s the teeniest of hints that this is an American putting on a British accent, and even that is quickly forgotten in such a compelling performance. Given the sort of character Anna is, let’s just say it’s not every day that one finds civility intriguing.
The punchlines in the show largely appealed to a receptive London Palladium audience, although it is well into Act Two before the King and Anna finally enjoy a convincing rapport. When ‘Shall We Dance’, the production’s ‘eleven o’clock number’, finally comes, the audience’s patience is rewarded quite gloriously. The set is impressive when it wants to be: the portrayal of the King’s palace isn’t half bad, while there’s a stunning opening scene – to reveal any more on that point would be treading into spoiler territory.
While the show is big and beautiful, it can also feel very intimate. The scenes in which Tuptim and Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson), an envoy from Burma, meet in secret, contrast well with, say, the classroom scenes, where Anna is in full flow, educating (or indoctrinating, depending on your point of view) the King’s favoured offspring in the ways of the West. There are, almost inevitably, things that need to be taken with a few pinches of proverbial salt in a twenty-first-century revival of a twentieth-century musical set in the nineteenth-century. That said, there’s something about a patriarchal figure seeking assistance from a woman that happens to be rather topical, as is the King’s fleeting thought about wanting to build a fence around his kingdom.
This is no radical reinterpretation of this musical. But it retains a rich vibrancy and energy, with a stronger emphasis on the characters than on the ongoing political situation at the time (though ever-encroaching colonialism seldom strays too far from the King’s thoughts). From the reflective ‘Something Wonderful’ to the gleeful ‘I Whistle A Happy Tune’ to the love song ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’, a variety of musical styles combine to provide a sparkling revival well worth seeing.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Making their West End debuts are the original Broadway stars; reprising her Tony Award-winning performance and ‘Broadway musical’s undisputed Queen’ (The Sunday Times), Kelli O’Hara (Anna), Tony and Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe (The King), and reprising her Tony Award-winning performance, Ruthie Ann Miles (Lady Thiang). Joining the cast are West End star of Aladdin, Dean John-Wilson and Na-Young Jeon as the young lovers, Lun Tha and Tuptim.
Fresh from London’s critical smash hit production of Oslo, director Bartlett Sher reunites the original creative team of Catherine Zuber (Tony Award winner for Best Costume), set designer Michael Yeargan, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Scott Lehrer and choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
Set in 1860s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist King, in an imperialistic world, brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children.
With a superior score of treasured songs including; Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, and Shall We Dance, and featuring a company of over 50 world-class performers, The King and I is a testament to the lavish heritage of gloriously romantic musical theatre.
THE KING AND I
Booking Period: 21 June – 29 September 2018