Review by Sam Waite
A beloved classic that's never truly left the public consciousness – for better (the iconic songs) or worse (accusations of white saviour-ism) – The King and I is closing out its UK tour with a stint at the West End’s Dominion Theatre. Last seen at the Palladium with Broadway’s Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe reprising the title roles, Bartlett Sher’s production is, from its earliest moments, a crowd-pleaser.
Based on a novel which was itself adapted from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical finds widowed mother Anna arriving in Siam to become the new schoolteacher for the King’s many children, and several of his wives. The titular pair clash but develop a grudging respect during her employment but face real struggles to understand one another’s approaches to life, and to leadership, which threaten repeatedly to leave the relationship in tatters.
I'll be the first to admit that I entered the Dominion with some caution – Sher’s last London musical, a pleasant but often too safe My Fair Lady, was not precisely my cup of tea. Here, the staunch traditionalism was less grating, the familiarity more comforting than lacking in vision. The director seems to understand the delicate balancing act that is Anna and the King’s relationship, and brings a human, lived-in quality to their more intimate scenes, without sacrificing the grandeur demanded by the palatial setting and grandness of His Majesty’s tastes.
Helen George, best known for Call The Midwife, stars opposite Broadway star Darren Lee – the two are a strong match and have a compelling, richly-felt chemistry. Whether verbally sparring or seeming on the verge of a passionate embrace, both radiate a sense of familiarity and deep-rooted affection. Essential for the leading lady of a Rodgers and Hammerstein piece, George had a gorgeous and versatile voice – whether giving the requisite weight to the sung-spoken “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” or gliding smoothly into a bright, ringing soprano on “Hello Young Lovers”, George sounds consistently exquisite.
A less classically musical role, The King calls on Darren Lee’s obvious knack for recitation in a thoughtful and commanding “Puzzlement”. Both Lee and his leading lady play the parts faultlessly, imbuing their bickering characters with a real sense of opposing agencies and a grudging respect that noticeably shifts toward genuine affection. When the moment comes for their sumptuous performance of “Shall We Dance”, their two bodies and the sparks flying between them are enough to fill the sizeable stage. Supporting them are a strong ensemble cast, with obvious standouts in Cezerah Bonner and Marinella Phillips as Lady Thiang, the “head wife”, and newest wife Tuptim, both showing off soaring and spellbinding vocals and real emotional range.
Working off of Jerome Robbins’ original work, choreographer Christopher Gattelli makes splendid use of the open staging. As well as the title pair’s famous polka are enchanting ensemble work covering scene changes, and the striking, bold “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence towards the show’s conclusion. The sets from Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber are well-made and warmly familiar – perhaps this would have been the place for an adventurous twist, but everything looks terrific and the crowd had no complaints. Indeed, the evening's entrance applause wasn't for either of the leads, but for the boat which sails onto the stage in the opening scene, delivering Anna and her son Louie to Siam.
Lighting from Donald Holder is effectively used, casting the shadows needed for a subplot involving Tuptim and her secret lover. The brightness of the palace is brought to life subtly, suggesting a grandeur and scale without the sets needing to be overly elaborate. Scott Lehrer, as sound designer, also does well with his tasks, keeping in balance the stellar vocals and the rich orchestrations provided by Robert Russell Bennett. With a Richard Rodgers score, you want the music to sound lush, and with Hammerstein lyrics you want every syllable crystal clear, thankfully both achieved without issue.
Of course, a less forgiving viewer will find that the issues they already had with the work are still present. Yes, Anna veers worryingly close to “saving the uneducated locals from themselves” territory, and the leading lady herself openly contesting her employer's being seen as a backwards savage only does so much to counteract this. True, too, is the fact that contemporary audiences are increasingly less familiar with the style of book musical pioneered by Rodgers and Hammerstein, leading to the dialogue leading up to songs being a much less subtle bridge than it once may have been, and the sheer length (nearly 3 hours) being intimidating to some. (It's me, I'm some – the trend towards hour-long fringe work has spoiled me!)
While not to everyone's taste, particularly so long after its inception, this King and I is a rapturous, immensely likeable production that doesn't push the envelope for the simple reason that no one saw the need. For those of us willing to watch through a critical lens, and to accept the faults in work we continue to love, there are a handful of more feminist touches to Anna’s delivery, and the back and forth between Eastern and Western ideas of the 1800’s is fascinating once you put aside the all-Western writing team. Is the show a perfect representation of Siam’s (now Thailand) history? Absolutely not. But is it an entertaining show with spectacular songs? Absolutely, yes.
The King and I plays at the Dominion Theatre until March 2nd
For tickets and information visit https://ticketing.nederlander.co.uk/tickets/series/TheKingandI
Photos by Johan Persson