REVIEW: ‘The King and I’, The London Palladium

The King and I‘, The London Palladium

  The Lincoln Center Theater’s critically acclaimed, and multi-award winning, production of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s well-loved classic, ‘The King and I’, described as “the greatest musical from the golden age of musicals”, transfers to The London Palladium after huge success on Broadway, with stars Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe reprising their original roles as lead characters Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam.

  Based on the semi-fictionalised biographical novel entitled, ‘Anna and the King of Siam’, by American author Margaret Landon, which features the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, in which she chronicled her time as teacher to the royal children of Siamese King Mongkut, the musical explores the notion of imperialism in a fierce clash of culture, as East meets West, the modernisation of Siam the end goal.

  Yet, at its heart is the very human relationship, one of unspoken love, between Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam, which is why the musical continues to capture, and quite possibly to break, the hearts of audiences today, just as it did upon the musical’s opening on Broadway in 1951. With a searingly beautiful score, the musical continues to be, as it always has been, one of the greats, and this revival is no different.

Kelli O’Hara (Anna) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  British school teacher Anna Leonowens arrives in 1860s Bangkok at the request of the King of Siam, who desires that she teach his many wives and children, the first step of many he is taking in a bid to modernise his country.

  Directed by Bartlett Sher, this production proves a radiant revival of regal refinement, swamped in oriental opulence. A triumphant tribute to the golden age of musicals!

  The cast, made up of over 50 performers, is one of sheer perfection. Accomplished performances from a world-class ensemble, their stage presence compelling, engaging, and hugely charismatic. What is heartening is that all of our characters are flawed and, as a result, are so much more human, so much more real, to audiences, rendering them all the more relatable, endearing, and lovable. All express a desire to be taught, and all strive for betterment, whether personally, or on a larger scale.

  In their West End debuts, Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe walk alongside the likes of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, who took on these hefty roles in the popular film version of 1956, with Brynner playing the role of King of Siam a staggering 4,625 times on stage, in what was to become his best known role. Both O’Hara and Watanabe are blessed with a rare gift, and their performances in this production are monumental.

Kelli O’Hara (Anna) and cast in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  School teacher Anna Leonowens is a very strong-willed character, not afraid to speak her mind, and to stand up, respectfully, for what she believes to be just and right. At the request of the king, she helps him works towards his ambition by introducing western values into the traditional Siamese court.

  Kelli O’Hara shines as Anna Leonowens, conducting herself with effortless grace. Her vocals are flawless, her early rendition of ‘Hello Young Lovers’ magnificent. She remains throughout the picture of Victorian refinement and feminine charm. However, a forceful and dynamic personality in her own right, O’Hara’s Anna continues to, politely and respectfully, stand her ground. Throughout, O’Hara exhibits a truly captivating presence – utterly mesmerising, charming, enchanting, and poised.

  The King of Siam desires to gain a greater insight and understanding of western values, the adoption of which, he hopes, will result in both himself, and his country, being accepted, and respected, by other nations, as a civilised ruler, of a civilised country.

Kelli O’Hara (Anna) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Ken Watanabe is simply majestic as the King of Siam. He bears a very noble stature, and is suitably authoritative and stubborn, yet intensely charismatic, his performance skilfully animated. A complex character, the King of Siam is a tortured soul, and Watanabe captures the inner turmoil of a man torn between tradition, and the idea of moving forwards to a state of modernity, breaking free of outdated traditional values. On a personal level, this is a character that is torn between doing what is expected, what tradition will require of him, and in doing what he believes in his heart to be the right course of action, and he sings of this struggle in ‘A Puzzlement’, during which Watanabe continues to skilfully adopt the unique and emphatic speech style of this iconic character. The King desires to maintain a public image of strength, and appears to view such traits as love, kindness and mercy as weaknesses. Anna teaches him, however, that such traits can be, in fact ARE, strengths, and the King consequently undergoes something of a personal development during the production.

  Watanabe’s King is, underneath the noble exterior, very human – and he tries. He tries to do what is right. He tries to do what is best – for his family, and for his people. He makes mistakes, as do we all, but he tries, and such a fact is respected, not only by Anna, and by the musical’s many other characters, but by the audience. A great king, and a good man.

Ken Watanabe (King of Siam) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  The relationship between O’Hara’s Anna and Watanabe’s King is, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, that of a “marriage of true minds” – a coming together, a union, of two people who are so intrinsically alike, so in tune with the other – both strive for betterment, both are ambitious, both want the best for themselves, those they love, and those under their care and, although their paths may be different, they have the same destination, both wanting similar things from life. The teach each other, and by each other, are taught. They bring out the best and, at times, the worst in each other, but it is this that makes their relationship so very real, attributing to it a deep sense of humanity.

  O’Hara and Watanabe portray this beautifully. Both characters are incredibly strong-willed, and remarkably stubborn, and their personalities often clash, with neither willing to back down, the values of each frequently at loggerheads. Yet, there is an underlying tenderness to their relationship which, honest, open and true, is unlike that they share with any other character, even that between the King and his many wives. Perhaps it is exactly because she is not his wife, that Anna remains his equal – not in a position of womanly duty, or submission, but of free will, friendship, and love.

Ken Watanabe (King of Siam) and Kelli O’Hara (Anna) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  There is such a natural chemistry between these two leads, and their characters, and the relationship between their characters, captures hearts. Anna and the King click straight away, and a battle of wits ensues upon their first meeting. They quickly touch each others minds, and hearts. The King has many wives, some of which are in favour, some of which are not. All, however, are treated as servants, viewed as being lower than, not only the King, but all of mankind, and they are in every way dutiful, humble and submissive, slaves to the will and whims of men. O’Hara’s Anna brings a new lease of life to the court and, not afraid of the King, readily calls him out, both in private and publicly, speaking to him as a man, which earns, albeit slowly, the respect, the admiration, of the king, perhaps as he sees in her what he knows to be in himself. She is, in every way, his equal.

  An iconic moment in the musical, ‘Shall We Dance’ really is a spectacular scene in this production, so uplifting, so very heartwarming. When these two characters are alone together, Anna proceeds to teach the King a western style of dancing, before the King pulls Anna close to him, and together they glide across the stage, Anna’s iconic purple dress billowing around her. There is such a closeness, such an intimacy, to this irresistible sequence and, through their movement, the two can say to each other what can not be said aloud.

Ken Watanabe (King of Siam) and Kelli O’Hara (Anna) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Jacqui Sanchez steps in as Lady Thiang, wife to the King and mother of the Crown Prince of Siam. Again of noble bearing, she is very dignified, and her rendition of ‘Something Wonderful’ was just that. A moving song in which the character acknowledges the King’s flaws, yet highlights his hopes, his dreams, his ambitions, and his tireless efforts to achieve these, this is a heartrending moment, and Sanchez is captivating, really giving the audience a sense of the persistent love her character has for the King, despite his mistakes, and she continues to show how deeply the character cares for the welfare of the King as the production progresses.  

  Forming a secondary romance is that of Tuptim and Lun Tha. Na-Young Jeon is exquisite as Tuptim, a young girl given to the King as a gift from the King of Burma. Jeon excels in the role, giving a very heartfelt and passionate performance, masterfully pained when necessary. Her vocals, often operatic, are divine, and she possesses an incredible range, her rendition of ‘My Lord and Master’ exceptional. Also possessing a desire to be taught, Tuptim borrows books from Anna, and soon writes her own adaptation of anti-slavery novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, by female author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Ken Watanabe (King of Siam) and Kelli O’Hara (Anna) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Entitled, ‘The Small House of Uncle Tom’, the play is presented to the King, in the company of a British envoy sent over to assess Siam, and their progress in the way of westernisation, and takes the form of a traditional Siamese ballet, of which she becomes the narrator. She allows her anger to get the better of her, however, and, with a rebellious outburst, she humiliates the King, for which he is anything but pleased. Based on her own experiences in the Siamese court, the plight of character Eliza reflects her own, capturing her own unhappiness at being trapped in the court, apart from the man she loves. With the exception of Anna, nobody can understand her misery, her torture at being separated from Lun Tha – she has everything in the Palace, and so is expected to be happy. And yet, she lacks the only thing she really wants, the only thing she needs – the man she loves. 

  Opposite Jeon is Dean John-Wilson’s Lun Tha, the character charged with bringing Tuptim to the court of the King. However, he proves hesitant to leave her, and she to see him leave, and it is clear from the offset the love that these two young characters have for each other, albeit one that is forbidden, given that Tuptim now belongs to the King. They are therefore forced to meet in secret, doing so in the gardens of the Palace, stealing every spare moment they can to be together, and yet fully aware of the dreadful consequences that will befall them should they be caught. John-Wilson’s strong vocals and rich tone proves a great complement to Jeon’s vocals, and their duets in ‘We Kiss in the Shadows’ and ‘I Have Dreamed’ are magnificent, and make for very touching viewing, as the beauty, the tenderness and the fragility of their relationship is exposed.   

Na-Young Jeon (Tuptim) and Dean John-Wilson (Lun Tha) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  However, their love was doomed from the start – for nobody defies a King. Not even a good one. After a failed escape attempt, Lun Tha is pronounced dead, and Tuptim, captured and returned to the Palace, vows to kill herself, for she cannot continue living if he is not living. She is dragged away, and we hear no more of either of them.

  Before she is led away, however, Tuptim is brought before the King, and he himself takes up the whip to punish her. After pleading on her behalf, but with no success, Anna drops down besides Tuptim, holding her arm, her gaze fixed on the King, declaring that he has become exactly that which he sought to avoid – a barbarian. We see just how much the King is hurt by this – his arm wielding the whip freezes above his head, and we see again this struggle, as he is expected, by those watching, to bring the whip down upon Tuptim, yet knowing in his heart of hearts that this is wrong.  The Kralahome, a position of Prime Ministerial status in Siam, masterfully played here by Takao Osawa who, although initially intimidating, causing both characters and audiences to warm to him, as we respect his love for his King and master, tells Anna that she has destroyed the King – that he is no longer, and now never can be, the man he once was.

Takao Osawa (Kralahome) and Ken Watanabe (King of Siam) in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  However, the truth is that Anna has made the King so much better – she helped bring out the best in him. In fact, they both changed each other for the better, each in their turn a better person for having known the other. It is their best that shines through that essentially wins out, at the close of the production. As the King lies dying, the very human nature of this man bursts through the cracks of his high and mighty exterior. His heart broken, his inner turmoil having tormented him for so long, now taken its course, both he and Anna are truly humbled, and when it really matters, it is clear just how much of an effect they had on each other, the resulting effect on the audience just as heartbreaking, as we reflect on what was, and what could have been.

  Jon Chew is outstanding as Crown Prince, Chulalongkorn. Also very animated, there are many similarities between his character, and Watanabe’s King and yet, it is clear that this Prince is very much his own man. Particularly at the end of the show, we really see the character have to step up and, as his father lies dying, the future King begins to make proclamations, the first of which decrees there is to be boat races included in New Year celebrations, a childish indulgence to suit his personal interests. However, his second proclamation abolishes the act of kowtowing, grovelling in submission at the foot of the King, and he demonstrates a more appropriate show of respect. Thus, he immediately shows promise of becoming a good man, and a good King, thereby walking in the footstep of his father, and inspiring thoughts of a brighter future for their country.

Kelli O’Hara (Anna) and the Royal Children in The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  The many children in the production were an utter delight. Jabez Cheeseman was wonderful as Louis Leonowens, son to Anna and, in his own way, himself embodied the values of Victorian high society, very polite and respectful, well-spoken, and well-mannered. Cheeseman had a heartwarming chemistry with Chew’s Chulalongkorn, the two forming a close friendship. The many royal children were remarkable, each so very professional, a credit to the production. We first meet the children during the ‘March of the Siamese Children’ and, though they are many, we really see a sense of individuality within each of these young actors (while the sequence also allows us a glimpse into the relationship between father and children), which continues during the famous ‘Getting To Know You’, in which the children begin to bond with Anna, and O’Hara guides them here spectacularly. The large ensemble of actors making up the many wives of the King are also extraordinary. Though a collective body, we once again see their individual personalities shine through, increasingly more so as the production progresses.

  The production is fortunate to have such inimitable creative aspects, reflecting tradition infused with exoticism, which ensures it bears a breathtaking and unrivalled scope. Michael Yeargan’s sets are truly remarkable. Beginning in the harbour of Bangkok, the boat on which travel Anna and Louis sailing over the edge of the stage, to the bustling Siamese marketplace, to the stunning palatial sets, the decadent throne room, and the low-hanging palace gardens, the exquisite panoramic sets are so open, so inviting, and yet, this is juxtaposed with a private intimacy, such as when in Anna’s bedroom. Donald Holder’s lighting further enhances the production by attributing a great sense of atmosphere. A perfect compliment to the show’s musical accompaniment, performed live by an orchestra of phenomenal talent, the lightly flashed starkly during musical crescendos, and shines gently during romantic melodies. Alongside Catherine Zuber’s richly detailed and intricate costumes, ranging from Victorian ball gowns to traditional oriental robes, the production is one of unparalleled beauty.

The cast of The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  Crucially, the production explores the conflict to arise when Western values are imposed on the exotic East. With this clashing of two very different cultures, there comes this struggle, between clinging to, and upholding, traditional values, and embracing change, finding a basis for improvement, and striving to move forwards, to modernise in a way that will only benefit. With the meeting of Anna and the King, a clashing of two larger-than-life personalities, with their equal stubbornness, and their refusal to give way, there transpires this greater conflict between their cultures, polar opposites – one on hand, Western modernisation, and on the other, East Asian tradition. However, as these two characters prevail to find a basis for common ground, so too do their cultures, finding and reaching a basis for compromise – in which the finer points of each are considered, with certain things giving way, in order that new values can be adopted, but tradition can be maintained –  for acceptance, and for reconciliation, an important message for audiences of today.

  Such politics very much takes a backseat, and human relationships – love and friendships – are the focal point of this production. Love, in many forms, is celebrated, with that between Anna and the King at the forefront.

  There is such a deep humanity, not only to our characters, but to this production itself. The production tenderly portrays the notion of imperialism however, despite the desire of nations to enter into modernity, this musical is one that does not need modernising, does not necessitate any alterations in order to reflect the ever-changing values of today’s society. The great joy with this classic musical is that it IS timeless, so classy and so beautiful, reflective of, not just a golden age in musicals, but a golden age in society, a time of revolution, when people, and nations, strove to be better. The musical continues to touch hearts, as it always has done, and as it will, undoubtedly, continue to do, forevermore.

The cast of The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

  This revival ensures the musical remains just as powerful, just as poignant, and as moving, as ever it was. Director Sher displays such respect for this unparalleled work by leaving it as it is, which is as it should be. The beauty of this musical is acknowledged by his remaining true to it, in his accurate and glittering revival, which really captures the splendour and majesty of an age gone by. In a time of such great change as today, this is one musical that should remain constant. It does not need to change, and hopefully, it never will.   

  In the very capable hands of Sher, ‘The King and I’ soars to wonderful and dizzying new heights. This handsome production encapsulates the very essence of great musical theatre, in an unforgettable fusion of drama, dance, and song. Full of heart and permeated with humour, this stunning revival is teeming with sentimentality, and with humanity, and packs with it an emotional punch unlike any other.

  A perfect adaptation of a truly great musical, this is, and will long be remembered as, a triumph.

  I prostrate myself at the feet of this resplendent production!

The cast of The King and I. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

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