The King and I is an age-old classic that has been entertaining people for decades. What started as Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam has been adapted to both the big screen and the stage, with live performances dating back to 1951. The King and I is now playing at the London Palladium. Director Bartlett Sher does a pretty good job of making the play his own, but there are several aspects that could be improved upon.
The King and I has always benefited from a great soundtrack with dazzling showtunes and beautiful numbers. In this respect, Sher inherits a masterpiece and adds just enough to keep it fresh and impressive. The singing is top-notch, and the choreographer brings plenty of flare to the stage with its mix of traditional and modern moves.
The problem with the King and I, however, lies not in its music or actors. The issue is with its archaic tropes and old-fashioned story. It has a heavily imperialistic plot and is often criticised as a piece that should have been behind in the era from which it came. Those with progressive views will understand why the play has been banned in Bangkok. With negative stereotypes littered throughout the script, many people feel that this classic should stay in the past.
Bartlett Sher is not convinced that the story is one that must be silenced, however. Sher makes a strong effort to skirt around some of the negative aspects of the play and focus on the exploration of a different culture rather than the exploitation of it. It works in some instances, making nuanced statements and subtly examining the differences between cultures. In other instances, however, his attempts fall flat and seem disingenuous.
Despite the controversy surrounding the story, The Kind and I still manages to impress from a purely stage-centered point of view. The cast members are consummate professionals, exchanging dialogue naturally and with much conviction. The music, as always, is fantastic, and the dancing that goes along is truly outstanding. If you can look past the anachronisms and try to see the play merely as a performance, it can certainly be enjoyed from an aesthetic and visceral perspective.
Anna and the King are played by Kelli O’Hara and Ken Watanabe, respectively. Considering that the story is one that requires an almost impossibly strong performance from the two main characters, you couldn’t really ask for a better pair. O’Hara beautifully portrays Anna as an eloquent and animated woman who is strong-willed but tender. Her singing voice is just as impressive as her acting skills, seemingly hitting every part of the musical spectrum as she dances elegantly about the stage.
Watanabe is a long-time stage and screen actor, and he certainly doesn’t phone it in with his performance. Not many have lived up to Yul Brynner’s depiction of the King in the classic film, but Watanabe may be the closest we’ve seen to date. His interactions are sincere and heartfelt, rather than calculated and cold. He provides a good amount of energy and brings a charismatic presence to the stage. The only downside to Watanabe is his singing voice. He isn’t bad, but it is obvious that he heavily outshined by O’Hara in the musical aspect. Still, his overall performance as the King is to be admired, and you can tell he did his homework before taking on the role.
The 29-member orchestra provides the perfect background music for the non-singing scenes, but they really shine when they accompany the lead actors in their songs. The members play admirably for the entirety of the 3-hour play, and it is clear that they are all made for this sort of performance. Rodgers and Hammerstein are known for musical writing abilities, and it takes a talented orchestra to really pull off their productions without error. This one does the job flawlessly.
The scenery and stage atmosphere are a little bit disappointing considering the nature of the play. It seems that the aesthetic has been toned down when compared to the original film and other stage productions of The King and I. This could be due to the overly exotic representation of the culture that is present in those renditions. Still, it feels that more could be done to create a visually stunning and lavish environment that is one of the key components of the story.
If you are a long-time fan of the original story, Sher’s The King and I will give you plenty to smile about. If you are unable to separate its anachronisms from the core of its story, this production doesn’t quite do enough to help it shake the negative stigma. Still, strong performances from the cast and crew make it an overall enjoyable play that provides plenty of entertainment and can make for a pleasant night out.