THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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The King and I
By Rodgers and Hammerstein
The London Palladium, London W1
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
The London Palladium is on a winner with the arrival from Broadway of this sumptuous spectacle which originated at Lincoln Centre in 2015. It won 4 Tonys, including one for Kelli O'Hara, whom we finally get to see on this side of the pond. It has been worth the wait.
The purity of her vocal sound, her control and her effortless technique makes her probably the best 'legit' voice on Broadway or the West End at present but added to all that she has the acting chops. She brings sensitivity, wit and charm to Anna which ultimately puts the audience in the palm of her hand. In 'Hello Young Lovers' you believe her depth of emotion and in the bedroom soliloquy, 'Shall I Tell You What I Think of You', she totally grounds her character.
The other standout is the charismatic Japanese movie actor, Ken Watanabe who plays The King. He helps us forget other more florid and two dimensional characterisations of the past and brings a vulnerability and humour to the monarch, albeit one who is prone to flights of despotic rage.
Of course a show from 1951, even one like this with its liberal heart on its sleeve, is going to look very dated today. It is antique in its treatment of racism but director Bartlett Sher doesn't go against the grain of it or strain for relevance where none exists. It is what it is.
The King's relationship with Anna mirrors the broader political struggle between tradition and modernity going on at this time. In 1862 Siam was besieged by French on one side and the East India Company on the other and the King had to try to assimilate to the modern world without becoming colonized by it. He wavers between fencing his country in or taking the risk of opening it to the outside world.
Designer Michael Yeargan's imposing grey palace wall, which dominates the set, neatly illustrates this point. But we're not starved of luxury either – an enormous front cloth has more gold leaf than Versailles. Catherine Zuber's Tony winning costumes add to the lusciousness, especially for the exotic play within a play, which the young Tuptim stages for the visiting British diplomat.
Na-Young Jeon and Dean John-Wilson provide vocally strong support as the doomed young lovers, she having been a gift from the Cambodian king. Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang, the Chief Wife, rises above the un PC lyrics of 'Something Wonderful' to create an aria of pure emotional force (Mori replaces Tony-winner Ruthie Ann Miles, who was sadly seriously injured when she was hit by a car in Brooklyn in March). The music does all the work here, there is no need for subtext.
Musical theatre alchemy is rare and it happens when the acting, singing and dance finally blend as one, after a cast has done the hard work of building us up for that signature moment. It happens here on 'Shall We Dance'. Sher stages it with delicacy as it is the culmination of the evolving relationship between the two. It deservedly brings the house down.