Rodgers and Hammerstein’s copper-bottomed audience pleaser, The King and I, stands as one of the best-loved but most problematic musicals of the 20th century. Bartlett Sher’s well-received 2015 production, which premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater before transferring to the London Palladium last year, and is now touring the UK in a victory lap, does not reinvent the wheel. It tackles the issues inherent in the story of a British widow bringing European values of decency and civility to the untamed East by playing things with a relatively straight bat.
Other than a greater emphasis on comedy and the inclusion of Western People Funny – a song that goes some way to redress the balance of this Europe-centric depiction of Asia – this is the show that audiences already know and love.
Visually, it is never less than sumptuous – although nothing quite matches the impact of the steamboat and recreation of Bangkok harbour in its opening scene – while Richard Rodgers’ matchless melodies are given full rein by Robert Russell Bennett’s lush orchestrations and an expansive sounding 12-piece orchestra.
Annalene Beechey imbues Anna with a convincing mix of tenderness and determination, and sings with a mellifluous clarity. Her chemistry with Jose Llana’s equally assured, boyishly petulant King is palpable, convincing you that their burgeoning love is more than just Stockholm syndrome. The moment he places his hand on her waist ready for Shall We Dance? is as carnally charged as any sex scene.