Review Roundup: The Critics Weigh In On Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in West End's THE KING AND I
The multi Tony Award-winning production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I has transfered from Broadway to London this month following a critically acclaimed 16 month run at New York's Lincoln Center Theater and an unprecedented continuing record-breaking sold out USA tour.
Now playing at the world famous London Palladium, the show stars three of the original Lincoln Center Theater lead actors: led by Tony Award winner and Kelli O'Hara as Anna Leonowens, film star, Oscar and Tony nominee (for his role on The King and I) Ken Watanabe in the title role of The King of Siam and Ruthie Ann Miles reprising her Tony Award winning role of Lady Thiang. Japanese actress Naoko Mori shares the role of Lady Thiang. Takao Osawa, the multi-award-winning actor and star of one of Japan's most popular television series JIN, plays the Kralahome, trusted adviser to The King of Siam. Dean John-Wilson (who starred in the title role of Disney's original West End production of Aladdin) and Na-Young Jeon play the young lovers, Lun Tha and Tuptim.
With music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, The King and I - which won four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical - will open its European Premiere at the London Palladium. The production will open 21 June 2018 (Press Night on 3 July 2018) for a limited engagement, until 29 September 2018.
One of Rodgers & Hammerstein's finest works, this masterpiece boasts a score featuring such beloved classics as Getting To Know You, Hello Young Lovers, Whistle A Happy Tune, Shall We Dance, I Have Dreamed, and Something Wonderful. Set in 1860s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom the imperious King brings to Siam to tutor his many wives and children.
Let's see what the critics have to say!
Matt Wolf, The New York Times: An American playing a British character on this side of the Atlantic might seem a risk too far, but Ms. O'Hara navigates the task with the same ease she brings to her soaring vocals: If anything, the Rodgers and Hammerstein score seems to emanate even more deeply from somewhere deep within a performer who gently hints at the #MeToo-worthy dynamics of a piece about female empowerment without pushing the modern parallels to excess. (If only the orchestra were larger, but that's a perennial lament.)
Ann Treneman, The Times: What a treat. The shimmering curtain (imbued with an incredible 250 sq m of gold leaf) opens to reveal a meticulously detailed sailing ship. On board is a certain Anna Leonowens, her hoop skirt swinging with a force to be reckoned with. It's 1862 and she's a widow who has come to Siam to teach the King's children (numbering upwards of 60).
Tim Bano, The Stage: But there are moments of lavishness that are unnecessary. The first scene has a huge boat come on stage, and nowhere else does the show rely so heavily on set to summon grandeur. The rest of the time it does it through excellence in acting, singing, dancing, and the deft manipulation by Sher of a huge ensemble. Also, the boat has to reverse in order to leave the stage, which looks clunky and is one of few directorial missteps.
Michael Billington, The Guardian: Even if I never felt there was much kinship between the story's dual protagonists, O'Hara, who won a Tony award for her performance, is a delight. She suggests a woman who is both spirited and sweet-natured and not only enunciates every syllable of her songs but invests them with emotion. I've never heard Hello Young Lovers better delivered: when O'Hara announces "I know how it feels to have wings on your heels" a light comes into her eyes as if she is reliving her past. O'Hara's Anna is also at ease with the king's multiple children, whom she swings merrily around, underscoring the point that her commitment is less to the king than to future generations.
Debbie Gilpin, BroadwayWorld: Though there are times where it's quite difficult to understand Watanabe's words - unfortunately, including a potentially entertaining number ("A Puzzlement") - he more than makes up for it in charisma, humour and a magnetic stage presence. His ability to switch from charming man to tyrannical king is especially impressive.
Daisy Bowie-Sell, WhatsOnStage: Sher's production is huge, lavish and looks gorgeous with Michael Yeargan's designs and Catherine Zuber's costumes making the stage sing with colour. Act two drags a little, which could be to do with Jerome Robbins' extraordinary original ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" (a kind of play within a play that brings the romantic sub-plot to its head) running for its full 16 minutes. The mixture of ballet with traditional Siamese dance is a wonder to watch, but it does make this already fairly long musical quite a lot longer. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli does do well to recreate the original within this version, however, and the rest of his movement fits flawlessly within the piece.
Quentin Letts, Daily Mail: It is hard to be as enthusiastic about Ken Watanabe as the king. Perhaps half his lyrics are inaudible. This is the role that was played for more than 4,000 performances by the late Yul Brynner. He managed to make the king more manly, more lithe, more brisk - yet less guttural. Director Bartlett Sher could not be accused of hurrying things. The evening lasts almost three hours and, if there are slow passages, they give you a chance to admire a tall-columned set and shimmering gold curtains which turn to silver in a switch of lights.
Marianka Swain, The Arts Desk: This is also a golden production that revels in spectacle, supported by a full-blooded orchestra making a beguiling case for this classic score. It opens with a giant boat steaming into view, and even set changes become opportunities for well-honed dance numbers. On the whole, Sher uses spectacle judiciously for story, demonstrating the scale of the palace, its unified inhabitants, and a King fuelled by the performative reverence of his people.
Paul Taylor, Independent: As Anna, Kelli O'Hara, with her gorgeous shimmering soprano and aura of witty, uncloying goodness, reinvigorates The King and I. She shows you a loving widow (the remembered rapture in her sublime rendition of "Hello, Young Lovers" sounds positively winged), a committed schoolteacher - and a firm, principled feminist fighting for her rights and refusing to be treated as servant. This is all the more powerful for the grace and lightness of touch with which O'Hara handles it. She has a fine sparring partner in the Japanese film star, Ken Watanabe, as the impulsive autocrat who's trapped by his kingship in a permanent state of spoilt, petulant adolescence.
Jessica Weinstein, The Jewish Chronicle: The staging felt very traditional. It stuck close to the original. That's not necessarily a bad thing - it definitely pleased the audience - and I can see how any attempts to adapt the staging whilst using the original script could have presented more problems than it solved.