Music: Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Director: Bartlett Sher
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Very few of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musicals come without problematic moments. One only has to think of Billy Bigelow’s wife beating ways, the admiration for Nellie Forbush’s daring to accept her lover’s two mixed-race children, or the cultural stereotyping that is embedded in the core of the now rarely produced Flower Drum Song.
So it is not without apprehension that one approaches a revival of The King and I, regardless of director Bartlett Sher’s production having collected four Tony Awards during its run at New York’s Lincoln Center. The story of an East Asian nation improving its standing in the world by adopting English values, of another culture’s traditions and art being appropriated for a Western audience, certainly carries with it the threat of racial insensitivity.
It is a concern that this production is not only aware of, but one which it actively seeks to allay – even, in places, to satirise. The result is as fine a revival as one could hope for.
Kelli O’Hara shines as the young widow Anna Leonowens, hired by the King of Siam to educate his growing brood of children, as well as his many wives, into the world of science. The Act I dynamic, of a headstrong young woman earning the love of a group of children in the face of a domineering father, would later be repeated and refined for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. The motivation here is stronger, though, with Ken Watanbe’s King eager that his love of, and admiration for, the world of science is passed on.
And while Watanabe’s intelligibility may sometimes be in question, he expresses well the internal conflict of a man who is bound to the tradition that has served his country well even as he begins to embrace the prospect of change. Through his number A Puzzlement, and his conversations with Anna about the Bible, we gain the sense of a man who wants his country to modernise without subjugating itself to the West.
As a delegation from England approaches, Anna’s suggestion that the court dresses itself in finest Western-inspired fashions is perhaps the most contentious of The King and I’s original plot points. But far from being mindless dolls, Sher has them knowingly mocking the whole exercise, as they forego their own rich heritage and sumptuous fashion to bind themselves into high heels and hoop skirts.
And the Act 2 ballet sequence –an extended, and very loose, adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, transposed to a Siam setting – gains far more in this production. Presented by the Princess Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon) – who has been sent from the King of Burma as a “gift” despite her being in love with Dean John-Wilson’s Lun Tha – the tale of a young woman escaping the clutches of slavery gains a sense of cohesion to the overarching narrative that enhances both stories.
There is also a sense here that the ballet’s reworking of an American classic, the tweaking of one culture’s art forms for the enjoyment of another, is a sly meta-commentary on the sort of cultural appropriation that The King and I is itself a part of. But the point is not laboured, which makes it all the sweeter.
And ultimately it is the combination of O’Hara and Watanabe that would make or break this production. Together, they are impressive: not least when, after explaining that her (frankly oversized) crinoline is an expression of a woman’s need to stand apart, and be protected, from men, Anna allows the King to take her into a ballroom hold, breaking into that personal space for Shall We Dance?.
With an enormous supporting cast (led by a magnificent Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang) Sher elicits performances that are imbued with nuance where previous Rodgers and Hammerstein productions may have concentrated on spectacle alone. When combined with the sumptuous score which fills the Palladium, The King and I brings back a huge amount of old-style musical glamour to remind us all why this genre can be so magical.
Continues until 29 September 2018 | Image: Matthew Murphy