The grandeur of the London Palladium is a fitting home for Roger and Hammerstein’s most elegant musical. Based on a true story, The King and I tells the tale of schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam and their unlikely but endearing relationship.
This production is the 2016 Broadway revival that then embarked on a US tour. Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe reprise their lead roles and deliver performances that are both contemporary yet hark back to the world of the classic Broadway musical. In fact, the whole show has a sheen of nostalgia, a feeling of looking into the past. The show is filled with a series of great songs but there is no real 11 o’clock number, no large spectacle pieces that are the hallmark of the modern musical. Instead, it relies on storytelling and character.
Watanabe portrays a King who is both sure of himself and at war with his own mind and thoughts, a strong leader torn between tradition, diplomacy and modernisation desperately seeking a place in the world at a time when the west was building vast empires, yet trying to maintain an independent identity. His reasoning for bringing Anna to Siam was to provide some western education for his wives and children, to learn about the world which they inhabit. His is inquisitive and scientific but aware that his place in the world of Siam and the court is built upon tradition and that by letting in western ideas, he is at risk of destabilising his position,
The relationship between Anna and the King is often fraught but they carry a level of respect for each other. Anna respects the King, not just as a monarch, but as a man with a brilliant mind, wanting to learn and change and also because he can be charismatic and charming. The King respects Anna for her scientific mind and grows to respect her for standing her ground, knowing herself and for her role in a diplomatic mission with a party of visiting English.
This tug of war relationship is beautifully played out by O’Hara and Watanabe. Over the course of the evening, you see their relationship grow and develop with the lows of clashes of culture and ideals and the highs which culminate in the iconic ‘Shall We Dance?’ sequence.
The choreography, inspired by the original production, added to the classic feel of this production and fitted perfectly with the tale. The highlight was the play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Act II, telling the story of a slave's escape from a ruthless, tyrannical king. The play within a play has the same effect as the Mousetrap in Hamlet – ‘the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’ It aggravates the King and results in a scene where the King threatens to punish the author in an inhumane way, potentially unravelling his relationship with Anna and everything he has worked for.
This production, the costumes, scenery, direction, cast, music, everything about the show melded perfectly to create an elegant, classy musical that is akin to watching a great master at work.
The King and I is currently booking at the London Palladium until 29 September. Get your tickets here.
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