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The King and I at the London Palladium – review round-up

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I at London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara in The King and I at the London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Hard hats on. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, the latest Broadway juggernaut to take a trip across the Atlantic, has sailed into town, awkward Orientalism in tow. Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center revival has plonked itself in the Palladium until late September.

Read our interview with Bartlett Sher

The King and I, which is based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and The King of Siam, first opened on Broadway in 1951, with its then-acceptable story of a fleeting romance between a British governess and a Thai despot. An instant, Tony award-winning hit, the musical has been revived regularly ever since – the last time it cropped up in London was in 2000, when Elaine Paige and Jason Scott Lee took the title roles.

Sher’s new staging, which scooped up four Tony awards in 2015, including best musical revival, stars Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe, both stars of stage and screen, both making their West End debuts.

The King and I star Kelli O’Hara: ‘Doing work that feels like it has a message is very satisfying’

But do O’Hara and Watanabe reprise their roles well? Do the British critics whistle a happy tune? Does Sher’s staging solve The King and I’s ropey, racist problem?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…

The King and I – Problematic plot

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I at London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara in The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The King and I long stands accused of being anachronistic despite the stunning show tunes, its outdated imperialism ill-fitted to a modern musical, its depiction of a Western schoolteacher civilising an Eastern country out of place on the stages of today. And yet here it is. Has Sher and his creative team managed to work a way around the warts?

For some critics, they simply haven’t. Although this production is “handsomely mounted” according to Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★), “the musical itself, however, remains, a problem to be solved as much as a show to be enjoyed”.

“In 2018 the hyper-orientalist depiction of the Kingdom of Siam (aka Thailand) presided over by Ken Watanabe’s eccentric man-child of a king is frequently cringeworthy,” lambasts Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★). “We wouldn’t tolerate this from a contemporary show.”

“If it’s going to stay in the canon, it’s going to have to keep up with the times – if Shakespeare can do it, then Rodgers and Hammerstein should as well,” he concludes.

“There is a political crudeness about the show that stubbornly grates,” echoes Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★), while Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage, ★★★★) observes “uncomfortable moments” in what is “undeniably a beautiful revival”.

Others, though, reckon Sher has smartly side-stepped the musical’s more questionable motifs. Under Sher’s direction, says Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★), “it becomes less about ogling the oddities and exoticism of Siam, and more about exploring the points where cultures diverge and differences emerge”.

“Sher’s even-handed production presents it more as a cultural exchange, one in which the benefits and absurdities of both realms are readily apparent,” nods Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★★).

Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) concurs. Although “there’s a smack of imperial condescension” about proceedings, “Sher suggests the situation is quite a bit more nuanced than that in this beautiful, subtly updated Lincoln Center revival”, he reasons. “He is no doctrinaire revisionist, imposing changes from without. He works from inside the material, sensitising you by his direction to what you hadn’t quite registered was already there.”

Sher’s production “finds depths, subtleties and ironies in the piece”, adds Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★). “It draws out the absurdity of Western behaviour – the crinoline, the uncomfortable shoes, the obsession with manners.”

And some critics reckon there was nothing wrong with the work in the first place. “Sure, it’s old-fashioned and a bit creaky,” laughs Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★). “But The King and I is also – to quote one of its utterly glorious catalogue of standards – something wonderful.”

“If a modern show tunes duo produced that plot, imagine the protests at the next Oliviers ceremony,” chunters Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “The Royal Shakespeare Company’s press office would need to hire more staff, simply to issue Greg Doran’s pompous denunciations of Rodgers and Hammerstein for various ‘ism’s. Happily, life was less complicated in 1951.”

The King and I – A ravishing revival

A scene from The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy
A scene from The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Look beyond the friendly 1950s racism and what do you see? Has Sher – a 2008 Tony Award-winner for his revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific – served up the goods again?

“At the start of this wonderfully lush musical the stage is dominated by a ship’s giant prow, which glides towards the audience, and the grandeur of this scene sets the tone for a production that has an impressive sense of scale,” intones Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★).

“From the opening moments, when a paddle steamer glides across the stage bringing teacher Anna and her young son Louis to Bangkok against a violent orange sunset, the aim is to bedazzle,” chimes Allfree. “The large cast is expertly marshalled and Jerome Robbins provides original, needle-sharp choreography. With an opulent score and gorgeous sets drenched in ochre and cobalt, the production never fails to deliver sensory pleasure.”

“In old-fashioned Broadway terms, the production looks and sounds ravishing – it has a splendour that lets punters see where their money (top ticket prices are steep) has been spent,” contributes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), while Bowie-Sell opines that “Sher’s production is huge, lavish and looks gorgeous” and Hemming labelling the show “blazingly beautiful”.

“There is no scene that does not set out to impress,” says Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★★). “Michael Yeargan, the designer, has indulged us by creating magic with a golden shimmer and a flower garden in which all 22,000 blooms were made by hand. The choreography, by Christopher Gattelli, has a unique blend of East and West.”

“It’s a huge show and an opulent production, with Michael Yeargan’s burnished gold sets suggesting Mongkut’s palace and Catherine Zuber’s design for Anna’s hoop skirt taking up most of the stage,” trumpets Bano. “But there are moments of lavishness that are unnecessary.”

“Nothing can completely prepare you for the lengthy sequence in which ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ is reinterpreted as a traditional Siamese dance theatre show – it kind of hovers between being jaw-droppingly inappropriate and endearingly mad,” says Lukowski. “I mostly just gaped at it incredulously, unable to stop myself from noting the fact that it was beautifully costumed and choreographed.”

The King and I – Delightful debuts

 Kelli O'Hara in The King and I at London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Kelli O’Hara in The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Not one, but two big names make their West End debuts here: Kelli O’Hara, Broadway royalty, recipient of six Tony nominations, and finally a winner for her performance in this production’s Broadway run; and Ken Watanabe, the Oscar-nominated Japanese actor who has starred in The Last Samurai, Inception, and Godzilla, here taking on a role played more than 4,000 times by the late, legendary Yul Brynner.

O’Hara is, as you’d expect, incredible. She is “a delight” according to Billington. “She suggests a woman who is both spirited and sweet-natured and not only enunciates every syllable of her songs but invests them with emotion,” he lauds. “I’ve never heard Hello Young Lovers better delivered.”

She has a “gorgeous, shimmering soprano” and an “aura of witty, uncloying goodness” according to Taylor, and according to Lukowski, her singing is “just exquisitely detailed, cascades of perfectly precise, bell-clear sound”.

“Throughout, O’Hara’s voice seems like the most natural miracle: trilling like a songbird, or softening into low notes like melting butter,” sighs Swain.

“She’s like the Julie Andrews of the modern era,” gushes Bano, while Hitchings beams over her “radiant charm and intelligence”.

“It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that Kelli O’Hara is made for this part,” asserts Bowie-Sell. “Her acting skills and delicate, but rich, voice come together to imbue Anna with an engaging compassion and humanity. Listening to her delivering those songs – the majority of them are hers – is hearing them as they should be.”

There’s slightly less love for Watanabe. Taylor praises a “layered performance” and Hitchings admires his “thunderous charisma”, but he is “not a technically adept singer by any stretch of the imagination” according to Lukowski, and “has only two modes — irascible or imperious — with not much in-between” for Allfree.

He has his fans, though. “His King is brilliantly funny, sharp and betrays moments of convincing vulnerability,” argues Bowie-Sell, while Treneman simply states that he is “a powerhouse”.

The King and I – Is it any good?

Ken Watanabe in The King and I at London Palladium. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Ken Watanabe in The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Well, if star ratings are anything to go by, you can chart The King and I up in the hit column. It’s mostly four-star reviews for this Broadway import, with a handy five from The Times to stick up on the posters. And it’s got a lot going for it, that’s for sure – a spectacular staging from Sher, and a devastating West End debut from O’Hara.

Should it still be on stage, though? Some critics have no problem with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s story, others think Sher has thoughtfully found a way around it, and others think it’s simply a case of wincing your way through the anachronisms to appreciate the art. It remains, then, something of a puzzlement.

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