It’s taken a long time to exorcise the ghost of Yul Brynner from The King and I. He played the King of Siam more than 2,500 times during his life, and the persistence of yellowface casting has always made the show seem insensitive in its portrayal of the East, mockery rather than commentary on cultural divides.
When Christopher Renshaw revived the show in Australia in 1991 he insisted that, for the first time, all the Asian roles were played by Asian actors. With Filipino actor Tony Marinyo in the title role, taken over by Lou Diamond Phillips on Broadway a few years later, the musical revealed itself to be relatively sophisticated in its depiction of two cultures meeting.
Rodgers and Hammerstein avoided the demeaning Orientalism that was in vogue when they wrote it, and instead offered an even-handed commentary on the way people with different habits and traditions can learn from each other.
American director Bartlett Sher had already resurrected South Pacific in his highly acclaimed 2008 production, so when he turned to The King and I for Broadway’s Lincoln Center in 2015 the stakes were high. But he has created something wonderful.
And when you look at the magnificent ensemble on stage two things become very apparent: East Asian actors are disgracefully underrepresented on West End stages, and any excuse about the talent not being there is rubbish.
Representation matters incalculably. Not least because, here, by having actors with Asian heritage play these roles it rebalances the show to be less focused through the Western eyes of Anna. It becomes less about ogling the oddities and exoticism of Siam, and more about exploring the points where cultures diverge and where differences emerge.
Based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, it explores how she became the teacher of the Siamese King Mongkut’s children in 1852. With the British in India, Burma, Malaysia and Singapore, and the French in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Mongkut was facing the threat of colonisation on all sides, and sought out a British teacher in order to modernise and westernise his kingdom.
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.
But there are moments of lavishness that are unnecessary. The first scene has a huge boat come on stage, and nowhere else does the show rely so heavily on set to summon grandeur. The rest of the time it does it through excellence in acting, singing, dancing, and the deft manipulation by Sher of a huge ensemble. Also, the boat has to reverse in order to leave the stage, which looks clunky and is one of few directorial missteps.
The occasional needless flash of profligacy aside, the production is incredibly strong. Ken Watanabe’s King Mongkut, under Sher, is no longer the object of humour, but its originator. His fierce exterior only barely hides the mischievous sensibility underneath.
That’s clear during a long scene when his children parade onstage, mucking about instead of heeding the formalities of bowing. Even as he chides them a smile breaks through; he shows his care and love for them. Watanabe’s singing voice is a fudge, despite the fact it’s not a particularly demanding singing role, but his acting is great: a king in crisis, learning to balance authority with humility.
Kelli O’Hara has collaborated with Sher on many occasions, earning three Tony nominations on productions with him, as well as a win for this show in 2015. And she really is wonderful as Anna: full of sweetness and light when she’s teaching the King’s children, but able to bring a resilient edge to her role when sparring with the King.
Combined with an operatic soprano voice that is a masterclass of strength and precision, she’s like the Julie Andrews of the modern era (indeed there’s a lot in the role of Anna that presages Maria in The Sound of Music). It’s a treat to see her on a West End stage.
The sense this production gives is that Anna and the King aren’t romantically in love, but instead form a strong friendship based on mutual learning and respect. Shall We Dance is joyous, but it isn’t romantic. But that speaks to the show’s complexity: the ambiguity deepens their relationship.
What sets this production apart, and confirms the great skill of Sher as a director, is the way these actors perform beyond the script. Their blanks are filled in, so that in moments when they’re not speaking or singing they are still existing.
That’s particularly true of Naoko Mori’s Lady Thiang, lurking solemnly at the back of the stage during many scenes. But in the act two opener Western People Funny – the only moment when we see her among the other wives without either the Westerner Anna or the Burmese concubine Tuptim present – she opens up into smiles and affection.
That song had always been cut from previous incarnations, deemed too offensive. Sher and Mori not only make it work here, but make it crucial in refocusing the Western lens through which the show is often seen: Lady Thiang and the other women skewer the incomprehensible discomfort of pointlessly restrictive Victorian dress.
Na-Young Jeon’s knockout rendition of My Lord and Master brings out the darker side of Mongkut’s regime. As Mongkut’s concubine Tuptim, her anxious face and flighty movements show a life lived in fear and owned by a man she doesn’t love.
Her narration of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet in Act II is mighty, as is the whole set piece with its Jerome Robbins choreography; a beautiful, thrilling 20-minute interlude that synthesises Eastern and Western cultures.
The production is sluggish at points, but with the show’s racist associations still depressingly recent it’s great to see one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most complex works reappraised: opulently, intelligently and with love.
An early version of this review incorrectly stated that Ruthie Ann Miles played the part of Lady Thiang. We apologise for this error