Review - The King and I at the London Palladium
Sure, it's old-fashioned and a bit creaky. But The King and I is also - to quote one of its utterly glorious catalogue of standards - something wonderful.
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some of the very greatest entries in the Great American Songbook for shows like Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific and The Sound of Music that between them mark a high point in Broadway's golden age of musicals (stretching roughly from 1944 to the early 1960s). But The King and I contains at least half a dozen of their most spellbinding marriages of melody and sentiment, including "Hello, Young Lovers", "We Kiss in the Shadow”, "I Have Dreamed", "Getting to Know You", "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?"
It has to be admitted, though, that the story, partly dulled by familiarity but also lots of clunky exposition, makes the wait between the songs a sometimes hard slog. Oscar Hammerstein's musical dramatisation of Margaret Landon's Anna and the King of Siam chronicles the experiences of a widowed Welsh English teacher who moves to Siam to the court of the King to be a tutor to some of his 77 (and counting) children from his multiple wives. Director Bartlett Sher treats it with reverence, while also trying to accentuate its relevance as a battle not just of the sexes but also of a clash of cultures.
Yet whenever the completely radiant Kelli O'Hara - reprising the performance she won a Tony for in 2015 when this revival originated at Lincoln Center Theatre, and here making her long overdue West End debut - takes to the stage, every doubt evaporates and you're transported to musical theatre heaven.
O'Hara has, in the last 15 or so years, risen from Broadway ingénue (in shows like The Light in the Piazza and a previous revival of South Pacific, both also at Lincoln Center) to star player in musicals new (The Bridges of Madison County) and classic (The Pajama Game), as well as appearing at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw her earlier this year in Mozart's Cost fan Tutte. She has a scintillating theatrical personality - but also a thrilling voice. To hear her dreamily sing “Hello Young Lovers” is to experience a complete connection between lyric, melody and meaning.
She truly puts the 'I' into the King and I, which for virtually his entire lifetime was a star vehicle for the late Yul Brynner, who created the role of the King in the original 1951 Broadway production, its subsequent 1956 film (for which he won an Oscar) and in countless revivals that followed, including one that I saw on this same London Palladium stage in 1979.
Now his role has been inherited here by the Japanese film and stage actor Ken Watanabe, and he has immense presence, dignity charisma in the role - even if sometimes what he is actually saying is, to quote another song from the show, a puzzlement.
But Sher's production otherwise has an admirable clarity, and is full of great voices from its largely Asian cast. Naoko Mori's Lady Thang soars on “Something Wonderful”, and as the illicit young lovers, Dean John-Wilson (London's original Aladdin) and Na-Young Jeon bring the tingling ecstasy of love to "I Have Dreamed".
Designer Michael Yeargan's design offers a spectacular environment of tapestry panels and tall pillars, while Catherine Zuber's costumes are a sumptuous visual feast, too.
It is a great addition to the summer theatrical roster for the West End.
The King and I tickets are available now.
Photo credit Matthew Murphy
What the popular press say...
"Sher's production gives deep pleasure and will make you think twice about patronising this show in future. Shall we dance? Stupid not to. "
Paul Taylor, Independent (four stars)
"From the moment she first breaks into song Kelli O’Hara’s performance as this widowed teacher has a radiant charm and intelligence."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (four stars)
"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."
Michael Billington, Guardian (three stars)