The Theatreguide.London Review
The King And I
London Palladium Summer 2018
One of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most audience-pleasing musicals with a tell-your-grandchildren-you-saw-it performance at its centre – not everything in this revival imported from Broadway lives up to the level of its star, but it remains a must-see.
First among draws is Kelli O'Hara as the Victorian schoolmistress serving, clashing with and developing mutual respect with the King of Siam in 1863.
O'Hara is one of the rare performers who combines a beautiful singing voice with the intelligence and sensitivity to listen to the words she's singing and act the songs rather than just making pretty sounds with her mouth.
To hear her sing 'Hello Young Lovers' is to hear it for the first time and be overwhelmed by both the music and the emotions within it.
Remember the first time you heard 'I Could Have Danced All Night' or 'Some Enchanted Evening' or 'The Music Of The Night' and rank this performance of this song among the truly transcendent theatrical experiences of your lifetime.
Which brings us to the second big reason to rush to this production. Like me, you probably have heard every song in the score dozens of times, in and out of context. But I was never so aware of how much extraordinarily beautiful music Richard Rodgers profligately poured into this one show.
Apart from any other virtues – and Hammerstein's lyrics are among his best – 'Hello Young Lovers,' 'Getting To Know You,' 'Something Wonderful,' 'I Have Dreamed' and the verse introduction to 'Shall We Dance' have exquisite melodies that Andrew Lloyd Webber and any other theatre composer would sell his soul to have written.
A somewhat distant third in the production's attractions is Ken Watanabe as the King. Watanabe brings an attractive intelligence and wit to the character, but he lacks the physical and sexual energy we expect in the role from its long association with Yul Brynner.
To be fair, the musical was written as a vehicle for the original Anna, Broadway star Gertrude Lawrence, with the King a secondary role and only Brynner's personal magnetism raised him to co-star.
But Watanabe is an oddly muted and colourless King, offering no real dramatic balance to O'Hara's Anna. One unfortunate result is that one of the Broadway musical's all-time iconic sequences, the should-be showstopping and heart-thrilling 'Shall We Dance', is a bit of a damp squib here.
Watanabe also has imperfect singing diction, and Oscar Hammerstein's witty lyrics to 'Is A Puzzlement' and 'Song Of The King' are muddied if not lost entirely.
There is little to praise in Bartlett Sher's direction. He and designer Michael Yeargan follow the 1950s mode of placing alternate scenes in front of a curtain to allow set changes behind it. But except for an opening scene of Anna's ship arriving (and being moved about the old-fashioned way, by visible stagehands) the set is largely unchanging and disappointingly bare, foiling any audience hunger for spectacle.
Yeargan not only screws up 'Shall We Dance' but the final scene is mistimed and 'The Small House Of Uncle Thomas' – choreographer Christopher Gattelli failing in his misguided attempt to improve on Jerome Robbins' original – clunky.
There are strong supporting performances by Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang, Na-Young Jeon as Tuptim, and all those adorable children. But come to this King And I to be overwhelmed by Richard Rodgers' music and thrilled by Kelli O'Hara's performance.
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