This production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein favourite comes with a fair bit of hype. Director Barlett Sher has great form reviving classics on Broadway, from South Pacific to My Fair Lady.
He turned his hand to The King and I at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2015, where it won four Tony Awards – including Best Musical Revival and Best Actress for its lead Kelli O’Hara. Now, following a US tour, it’s arrived at the London Palladium, with its original leads intact.
It feels like a homecoming. The King and I is a story of east meets west by way of British imperialism, and the Palladium, with its royal boxes and variety acts, feels like an entirely appropriate venue to host it. The Palladium’s stage is whopping, too, which helps when the script calls for an entire ship to sail on, a scene greeted with rapturous applause. The costumes are equally ostentatious, with the women’s skirts as big as those teacups you spin round in at the funfair.
Amidst the extravagant theatrics, O’Hara gives an unshowy, heartfelt performance as Anna. Though her vocal talent is considerable, she’s also, crucially, extremely likeable, and she has to be; she’s our everywoman, a widowed governness with a young son, stepping into a strange, exotic land to teach the King of Siam’s brood of children and wives.
Thankfully, the vast majority of the cast is Asian in this production (unlike previous versions), including Ken Watanbe as the eponymous King, who brings decent comic chops to the role, if not sterling vocals.
The big numbers – “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Getting to Know You”, “Shall We Dance?” – come and go with the minimum of fuss, seamlessly integrating into a culture clash tale that asks poignant questions about identity and modernity.
It’s a huge amount of fun, a virtually flawless rendition of a proper classic that’ll have you whistling in the aisles.