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Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is a musical theatre classic which first opened on Broadway in 1951 starring Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence.
Featuring such iconic songs as I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance?, Brynner went on to recreate his role opposite Deborah Kerr in the 1956 film adaptation, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor.
This new production, which arrived on Broadway in 2015, winning four Tony Awards, breezes into London with much of the New York cast and crew still in place – including director Bartlett Sher and its two leads – and, if this doesn’t have as successful a run in London as it did on the Great White Way, well… it’ll be a puzzlement.
Set in 1860s Bangkok, The King and I tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship between the King of Siam and British schoolteacher, Anna, who arrives from London – with her own son in tow – to teach the King’s children.
While the King and Anna embark on a battle of wits, young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim embark on their own clandestine relationship; back-dropping all of this is a real sense of change, both political and social, as two clashing cultures slowly begin to understand one another and learn how to live alongside each other.
Reprising their roles from the original Broadway production are Kelli O’Hara as Anna and Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam.
O’Hara won the Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her performance on Broadway; while the Oscar-nominated Watanabe was also nominated for his performance as the King.
West End star of Aladdin, Dean John-Wilson, stars as Lun Tha; while Na-Young Jeon plays Tuptim. Ruthie Ann Miles also reprises her Tony Award-winning performance as Lady Thiang, though she shares the role with Naoko Mori in the West End production due to personal circumstances.
The cast is rounded out by major Japanese film and television star Takao Osawa and a talented ensemble of performers that includes a gaggle of scene-stealing children.
Despite the show being nearly 70 years old, The King and I is surprisingly sophisticated; it’s dramatically satisfying, is beautifully imagined in director Sher’s vision, and feels very at home in the grand opulence of the Palladium (admittedly, this is the fourth time the show has ran at there in its potted history).
The Broadway leads are astonishingly good. O’Hara commands the stage in a way that is completely captivating – it helps that Anna is a trailblazer, strong and determined to do things right and in her own way; it certainly gives O’Hara plenty to sink her teeth into. Of course, that’s only one side to Anna’s character. On the other, Anna is an incredibly loving mother, a matriarch full of warmth and openness – it makes the character instantly likeable.
All of this is bolstered by O’Hara’s impeccable singing voice, which, frankly, is astounding. Somehow she manages to be entirely convincing when playing both sides of Anna – so much so that during songs such as I Whistle a Happy Tune or Getting to Know You, you can’t help but have a huge grin plastered on your face, it’s stupendous; and then, during moments like Hello, Young Lovers, she simply breaks your heart.
Watanbe, meanwhile, is having lots of fun. As the King, he’s goofy, confused and befuddled by Anna and the changes in the world around him. The result is an exceptionally vulnerable but ultimately arrogant leader – a fundamentally good man looking for answers to questions he doesn’t even know exist.
The rest of the ensemble are very good – Jeon in particular has a voice to die for – while the children, it goes without saying, are perfection. They’ll have you cooing in your seat, morphing into your own version of Mama Rose and plotting to see your own child’s name up in lights.
Yet, it’s the nuances of this production that make it. Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous designs frame the drama perfectly; Catherine Zuber’s lavish costumes are simply stunning; and Christopher Gattelli’s homage to the original Jerome Robbins choreography is just wonderful.
Ultimately though, it’s O’Hara’s and Watanabe’s vehicle. There’s a glorious sexual tension between the pair that bubbles away throughout – both rooted in the King and Anna’s attraction for each other and their mutual respect, too – meaning that a show that’s been around for well over half a century has lost none of its heat; in fact, this is genuinely exciting theatre that cannot be missed.
Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes, including one interval.
The King and I is now playing at the London Palladium until 29 September 2018.
Tickets are available now through Ticketmaster.co.uk