Theatre Review: The King and I London Palladium | Theatre | Entertainment
I’ve seen several stage revivals of the great Rodgers & Hammerstein musical since but none has matched those memories until now.
Bartlett Sher’s multi-award-winning production has transferred from Broadway, with its two original stars, Kelli O’Hara as the Welsh schoolteacher Mrs Anna, and Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam.
The story of Anna Leonowens’s life at the Siamese court is a true one, albeit highly romanticised here.
It gave Hammerstein the opportunity to explore the theme of a feisty woman in a staid household, who wins the hearts first of the children and then of their crusty father, which he later developed in The Sound Of Music.
The king’s struggle to modernise his country while resisting Western imperialism makes an interesting contrast with the depiction by Hammerstein’s disciple, Stephen Sondheim, of a similar struggle in Pacific Overtures, set in 1850s Japan.
Yet in spite of its rich cultural content The King And I’s success, like that of all Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, depends on the three S’s: songs, sentiment and spectacle. Sher’s production delivers these in spades.
Michael Yeargan’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes conjure up a world of oriental opulence.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreography adroitly bridges the gap between East and West, most notably in a Buddhist-inspired performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Rodgers’s soaring tunes are gloriously sung by Na-Young Jeon and Dean-John Wilson, the two young lovers to whom we say a most enthusiastic “Hello”, and Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife.
Ken Watanabe has a fine comic edge as the King but he swallows his lyrics, so his song It’s A Puzzlement becomes just that for all the wrong reasons.
The evening belongs to Kelli O’Hara, who gives one of the most deeply felt, gloriously sung, performances I’ve seen on the musical stage.
She wins over the audience as completely as Mrs Anna does the Siamese court.
Song and dance were central to the work of Joan Littlewood, the innovative director whose work at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, did much to shake up the British stage in the 1950s and 1960s.
Her life is now celebrated at the other Stratford in Sam Kenyon’s musical, Miss Littlewood.
Kenyon – like Lionel Bart, one of Littlewood’s protegés who makes a brief appearance here – is among the handful of writers who does everything: story, lyrics and music.
His book and lyrics are witty and engaging but his music, with the odd exception such as A Little Bit Of Business for a young Barbara Windsor (the delightful Emily Johnstone), is thin.
Clare Burt leads an excellent cast in a show that cleverly uses the director’s own techniques, including six alternative Joan Littlewoods, to create a fascinating collage of her career.
But the woman herself remains an enigma.