BWW Review: THE KING AND I, London Palladium
Following a hit run at New York's Lincoln Center Theater in 2015, Bartlett Sher's production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic makes its way to London's West End for a limited run at the London Palladium. Transferring with it is Tony Award nominee Ken Watanabe and Tony Award winner Kelli O'Hara, in the title roles.
English widow Anna Leonowens has lived in Asia for most of her life, and following the death of her beloved husband accepts a job as teacher to the King of Siam's children - though when she gets there things are not quite as she expected.
For one thing, she now has to teach a number of the King's wives as well as their children, and she's also distressed that she won't be granted a house to live in after all.
Anna initially feels trapped in the palace, but she grows to love the children that are in her charge and earns respect from the court in return; the King's views on women still infuriate her, but she reluctantly agrees to help prove to the British envoy that he is not a barbarian.
Her plan is to throw a typically European celebration, which includes dancing and a play written by the newest member of the King's harem, Tuptim. But when Tuptim disappears, the King's latent aggression rears its ugly head and threatens to undo all the progress he has made.
The musical was first performed in 1951 on Broadway, and is set in the 1860s; this doesn't immediately suggest that the content will be particularly progressive, however it is a surprisingly timely revival. Whilst the King does hold very old-fashioned, proprietorial views about women, Anna is there to help teach him a woman's true worth. I dare say some men in power across the world today would benefit from some lessons from "Mrs Anna".
Though it does become quite melodramatic as it races to tie up loose ends, on the whole it's a touching and rather funny book that's brought to life well under the direction of Bartlett Sher.
It's a good, old-fashioned musical, with the benefit of fresh eyes being cast over it for this production - Christopher Gattelli has choreographed it, providing some knockout routines that really animate the show, while still linking back through the years to Jerome Robbins' original choreography.
Michael Yeargan's set and Catherine Zuber's costume designs are simply breathtaking. Particularly outstanding is the large boat that brings Anna to Siam, as well as the array of fashions that adorn the wives, children and other courtiers; sumptuous and awe-inspiring, it is a true visual feast.
Not only that, but it's obviously a treat for the ears too - Richard Rodgers' score includes some very recognisable songs (such as "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?"), and ranges from jaunty to heartfelt. It's always nice to have an overture and entr'acte (even if to some members of the audience it's an excuse to keep chatting), as it gives the orchestra their moment in the spotlight, plus it transports you straight into the world that's about to unfurl on the stage.
As much as the show itself will attract an audience thanks largely to the popularity of the 1956 film adaptation, the star casting is also quite a draw. Though some of the King's children almost inadvertently steal the show (the entire audience is like putty in little Angelica Scott's hands), it is this duo that leads the piece impeccably, with some fine supporting performances from Dean John-Wilson, Na-Young Jeon and Naoko Mori.
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.
Opposite him as the forward-thinking Anna is a perfectly cast Kelli O'Hara, whose divine voice soars through the auditorium and carries the audience along with it. O'Hara is radiance personified, with an excellent sense of comedy to boot - an enchanting performance indeed.
A welcome return to the West End for this much-loved show - although the venue and casting do come at a price. However, if you can find a ticket in your price range, then I wholeheartedly recommend you do; story, casting and score come together in a heady mix that will make you "whistle a happy tune" for days.
Picture credit: Matthew Murphy