Over the summer, many theatregoers and I had the privilege of seeing the beloved Rodgers & Hammerstein musical gloriously revived at the London Palladium. Following a successful run at the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center Theater in 2015, Bartlett Sher’s Tony Award-winning production of The King and I finally made its way across the pond to the world-famous venue.
Many people will be familiar with the 1956 film directed starring Deborah Kerr as Anna Leonowens and Yul Brynner as the King of Siam. The musical is based on Margaret Langdon’s novel: Anna and the King of Siam, a semi-fictionalized account of Leonowens’ time as a governess to the royal children of the Siamese court. Anna is a widowed English teacher from Britain who arrives into Bangkok with her son to meet the king but discovers that he is overpoweringly stubborn and hot-tempered. As time moves on, it is revealed he desperately desires for his people and himself to be educated thoroughly on British customs in order to avoid Western colonization. In this production, Anna has a much tougher exterior with feminist elements incorporated into her character which makes the show very timely in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp. Historically, Siam became the only nation in South-Eastern Asia to avoid British or French takeover. King Mongkut’s successor, Chulalongkorn also became the first Siamese king to travel to Europe and the first to send his children away to adopt a Western education proving the significant virtues of education and compromise.
Lincoln Center Theater’s production of The King and I is a special treat for many reasons. The first reason is Kelli O’Hara, the leading lady who was trained to sing opera by renowned Florence Birdwell at Oklahoma City University. Her light, lyrical soprano voice is fitted perfectly to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s music, having also starred in productions of Carousel, South Pacific and Oklahoma. I must echo many critics’ point that she certainly delivers the definitive version of ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ as she introduces a new layer of melancholic bliss to the scene. Many Japanese audience members also showed up at the Palladium to see Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam. Indeed his singing voice is not as polished as Ms. O’Hara’s, but he still manages to exert his charismatic charms and reminds his audience why he is the most successful Japanese actor in the West. I was incredibly fortunate to meet both leads at the stage door following the performance and was pleasantly surprised by O’Hara’s natural Southern American accent as her British accent was very convincing. It’s no wonder she won her Tony for playing Anna during the Broadway run but it’s equally shocking that this was her first time performing in the West End. Lady Thiang was also played with an utmost sense of dignity by Naoko Mori (Ruthie Ann Miles was recovering from a car accident earlier in the year). I always get emotional during ‘Something Wonderful’ as it is a pivotal moment in the show where Anna is persuaded by Lady Thiang to stay in Siam following an argument with the King.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the timeless melodies by Richard Rodgers or multi-layered lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. I was overcome with joy when I learned that Bartlett Sher incorporated less-performed numbers from the original 1951 show such as ‘Western People Funny’, ‘My Lord and Master’ and ‘I Have Dreamed’, giving the sense that this is an uncut production. It was not surprising to also learn that Catherine Zuber had won an unprecedented 6th Tony Award for her exquisitely designed costumes. The eleven o’clock number remains to be ‘Shall We Dance?’ and it was certainly something worth waiting for. What starts out as something quite comical with the king learning to polka transforms into a moment of gasp-worthy sexual tension when the king lays his hand on Anna’s waist, deepens his voice… then pulls her in! The Palladium is known for its wide stage and I can’t imagine it being better used than for the famous climactic dance between the two leads.
The King and I: From the London Palladium will be broadcast to cinemas on November 29th as a one-off affair. For those seeking catharsis, laughter or nostalgia, I urge you all strongly to not to miss this outstanding production of The King and I. Like a sweet songbird, Kelli O’Hara’s voice soars and your heart will soar with her. It’s very eye-opening to see how relevant the show is to an audience in 2018 and remains a testament to the talents of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
by Carlos Tseng