There is no doubting the influence of Rodgers and Hammerstein, who created a slew of popular musicals that are still beloved today. In the fifties and sixties movie studios clambered over themselves to turn their delightfully family friendly musicals in to movies, including The King and I. Turn on the TV on a Sunday afternoon and one of their greats will probably be playing.
But seeing their work on stage is now less common, it’s been two decades since Oklahoma was in the West End, and over ten years since a television talent show found a Maria for The Sound of Music. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work has been overtaken by new edgier and relevant work, which is good news for the industry, but is there still a place with audiences for the ‘golden age’ of musical theatre?
English school teacher, Anna Leonowens is employed by the King of Siam (now Thailand) to teach the royal children, but only those of the royal wives who are currently in favour, this must come as a relief to producers as we are told the King has over sixty children, in one of the many references to the monarch’s polygamous lifestyle.
Any romantic relationship between King and teacher is merely hinted at, the plot focussing more on the personalities of the two as a metaphor for their differing cultures. A love story does develop between two other characters, Tuptim and Lun Tha and as always, it’s interesting to watch the stories unfold simultaneously.
Bartlett Sher directs this production of The King and I which has transferred from New York’s Lincoln Center, it has a very different look to Christopher Renshaw’s production which also played the London Palladium some twenty years ago. Sher’s production is more cinematic, making it feel more like the movie version many will be familiar with, from the very first scene as a large boat sails on to the stage, you know that this will be a visually commanding performance, and that continues through the streets of Bangkok and in to the Royal Palace.
There is sure to be comment on the Western view of the East, given how significantly things have changed since The King and I was written, the production itself goes someway in acknowledging this with the return of ‘Western People Funny’ which was cut from the movie and many subsequent stage productions.
Kelli O’Hara is simply wonderful in the role of Anna, every second she is on stage is a delight for the audience, she perfectly balances the feistiness with the caring side of the teacher, and her interactions with those adorable royal children could keep you smiling all night.
Ken Watanabe makes his West End debut as The King of Siam, he certainly manages to both align with and distinguish himself from Yul Brynner, who came to personify the role on both stage and screen. Watanabe is strong and commanding allowing the audience to fear and respect the King, while bemusing his childlike petulance. Sadly, it is often very difficult to pick up what he’s saying, and vast swathes of speech are lost, as you just wait for the next song.
Dean John-Wilson and Na-Young Jeon as Lun Tha and Tuptim respectively, are wonderful as the forbidden lovers, I found myself more captivated by their story, wishing there was more time spent on them. It is a fairly long production, but elements of story are passed by for finely choreographed dance routines, and of course ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ takes up a large portion of the second act.
The King and I comes to the West End under an immense weight of expectation, following glowing reviews in New York, and an extension before the first curtain up. On the whole the production more than meets this heavy burden, though it does sag at points, it is a clear demonstration that the golden age of musicals does still have a place in the West End, and indeed many of our hearts.