This beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical reaches pensionable age at least as far as UK productions goes, returning for another revival a full 65 years after its British premiere at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on 1953.
And while some might feel the sexual politics of the piece belong to a bygone age, this top-notch production, transferring to the London Palladium from Broadway where it picked up four Tony Awards from nine nominations, proves the show — containing a clutch of songs that have become musical theatre standards — is still capable of being a scrumptious feast.
Kelli O’Hara, one of those Tony recipients, stars as Anna Leonowens, the widowed English schoolteacher who arrives in Siam to teach the many children, and many young wives of the tyrannical king (Ken Watanabe).
The king’s view of women clashes with Anna’s even though she’s from Victorian England — hardly an environment known for its liberal views of the female sex. Anna proves to be made from stern stuff however and refuses to kowtow to the king’s views and stands her ground when the monarch attempts to renege on his promises and enforce his will.
The scenes between O’Hara and Watanabe are an absolute delight as culture clash follows culture clash and the pair spar for position but with an underlying sexual tension — well, what passes for sexual tension in 1862 anyway. Some of Watanabe’s lines get a bit mangled at times, but both leads show neat comic touches, and O’Hara sings like a dream.
Bartlett Sher directs with a deft touch in the smaller scenes and a sure hand in the show’s big moments, aided by Michael Yeargan’s no-expense-spared set and Catherine Zuber’s lavish costumes. Never is this more so than in the play-within-a-play, the narrated ballet “Small House of Uncle Thomas” that is an absolutely captivating ten minutes or so in the second act.
In the show’s romantic subplot, there’s an achingly poignant turn from Na-Young Jeon as Tuptim, the young slave girl gifted from the king of Burma to the King of Siam as yet another wife, who is secretly in love with Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson). But it’s when Watanabe and O’Hara are together that this terrific revival really comes to life. They simply light up the stage.
It’s a period piece, of course, but there’s a resonance in there that at times makes it feel very modern and demonstrates why it has such an enduring quality. And if the sexual politics passes you by, just wallow in three hours of romantic escapism — there’s nothing wrong with that.
The King and I is at the London Palladium until 29 September
You can book tickets at Radio Times Box Office
Photography by Matthew Murphy