Laura Plumley hugely enjoys a brilliant reimagining of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic at the London Palladium
Everyone has their first powerful memories of the ‘The King and I’: mine involves whirling around a tiny living room for hours with ‘Shall We Dance?’ blasting throughout the house, deploying a begrudging younger sister to enact the role of the King of Siam. The beauty of Richard Rodgers’ score – combined with the spectacular costumes of the 1956 film version – drew that little seven-year-old in completely.
So now, thirteen years later, I had extremely high expectations for this lauded Broadway to West End transfer of ‘The King and I’. From the first notes of the overture to the poignant yet forward-looking still of the cast at the end, Bartlett Sher’s production was an unmingled delight.
It can’t hurt to recap the story. The play is set in a Siamese palace where Anna Leonowens – a Welsh teacher – has been employed as the schoolteacher of the King’s myriad children and grandchildren. A close and unlikely friendship ensues.
A story like this requires believably opulent sets: Michael Yeargan’s are suitably elegant. For example, as the curtain rises, an enormous boat sails towards the audience. Ingeniously, the ship subsequently splits in half to form part of the dock-side hustle and bustle as Anna and her son Louis arrive in Siam.
The story builds towards a symbolic image of the coming together of East and West, as Anna instructs the inquisitive King in the polka. The dance was especially wonderful: Anna’s enormous beaded lilac dress – which cost the theatre a staggering £15,000 to make – was well worth that investment. And the glide of the dancers in and out of the palace’s columns, while the columns themselves moved, created a memorable spectacle.
The cast was also excellent. Kelli O’Hara’s performance as Anna, especially, is a tour de force. Her soaring, crisp soprano emotively conveys the powerful music and lyrics of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Her quiet, yet composed and moralistic Anna is beautifully contrasted by Ken Watanabe’s harsh yet conflicted King. Na-Young Jeon delicately portrays Tuptim, one of the King’s concubines, as vulnerable yet feisty, while Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife, is the embodiment of her main ballad – ‘Something Wonderful’!
Director Bartlett Sher is a seasoned hand at directing musical revivals – South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof and My Fair Lady have all been touched by his magic. He’s stated that this revival came with challenges. Some of the script has dated – especially when it comes to the careless treatment of cultures and the pronounced differences between East and West. Quite rightly, Sher has striven to deal with race in a more sensitive manner than the 1950s film adaptation – in fact, he specifically chose not to watch the film version, which is still banned in Thailand (modern day Siam) due to its skewed presentation of the kingdom. The use of an Oriental cast makes this production less of a Western ogling at strange Eastern customs and more of an honest presentation of the differences between nations.
Although certain racial themes are very much antiquated today, the manner in which Rodgers and Hammerstein address the role and position of women is ahead of its time. O’Hara’s Anna is ready to stand firm in the face of a stubborn king, demanding that he honours his promises to her. She questions the limits of her time and, however delicate her essential manner, does not shy away from confrontation.
So what does Anna represent? In other versions, she’s an image of the calming and authoritative Western presence, civilising the cliché of a ‘barbaric’ East. But in this production, Anna is shown as a powerful female figure during a time when women were expected to be subservient.
This is a first rate revival full of vigour, imagination and beauty. Even my unenthusiastic little sister would be impressed.
The King and I is at the London Palladium until 29th September
Laura Plumley is a writer at Spear’s