Review: The King and I, London Palladium

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The latest revival of The King and I has a lot to live up to in this the musical’s third iteration to be staged at the London Palladium. Notwithstanding high expectations together with the show’s difficult issues that are made even more complex in a modern world of evolving values, this transfer of the 2015 Broadway revival does not disappoint.

Staying mostly true to the 1956 Oscar-winning film that starred Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, the story is of 1860s Siam (now Thailand), where English widow Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) has arrived in Bangkok with her son to serve as governess to the many children of the polygamous King (Ken Watanabe). Chauvinistic and stubborn, the King is prone to temper tantrums  when he doesn’t get his own way, while Anna is a respectful, warm but headstrong woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. While the two inevitably clash at first they soon reach an understanding, a friendship forms and an attraction develops. But The King and I is more than just a love story; it’s a tale of East meets West, of two cultures colliding as a woman who’s ahead of her time tries to educate a King who’s living in the past.

O’Hara is the flawless gem of this production. The angelic-voiced soprano exudes warmth and grace and shines throughout – her performance of Hello Young Lovers in particular is simply mesmerising.  Her chemistry with Watanabe comes into play more in the second act, notably during the musical’s highlight, Shall We Dance? which proves a joy to watch. At times Watanabe struggles with his enunciation, particularly during his performance of A Puzzlement, however he puts in a commanding performance as the King. His monarch is charismatic and playful (particularly during the scene where he dictates a letter to President Lincoln), yet fearsome when angry.

At times the musical is not an easy watch, notably with the implication that ‘West is best’ but also with the King’s old-fashioned views of women and later, when he discovers the betrayal of clandestine lovers Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon) and Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson). But while there may be troubling issues, moments of humour are dotted throughout. The children’s parade, as the King’s adorable offspring are introduced to their new teacher, is a delight. The ensemble are a classy bunch too with Naoko Mori wonderfully cast as Lady Thiang. Mori’s take on Something Wonderful is one of the evening’s highlights.

If there is a lull at all, it is during the ballet of The Small House of Uncle Thomas which drags, however it is a routine essential to the plot, giving concubine Tuptim the courage she needs to speak out. It also allows the audience to admire Catherine Zuber’s colourful costumes and the dazzling choreography from Christopher Gattelli.

Directed by Bartlett Sher, the evening makes for fine theatre, brought to life by orchestrations from Robert Russell Bennett, music direction by Stephen Ridley with impressive set designs from Michael Yeargan. With infectious songs, stunning performances and splendid costumes, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, The King and I is something wonderful indeed.

Five stars

Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Bartlett Sher

This review was originally written for Jonathan Baz. To read the original, click here.

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