I have to admit, it was with some trepidation that we took our seats for the production of ‘The King and I’ at the London Palladium last week. Not because we (my mother and I) had low expectations of the show, but rather the contrary – this revival of the show, which began in 2015, had received such unanimously glowing praise that expectations were heightened beyond their usual level.
That, and the fact that we had managed to secure prime tickets for only the third running of this production since it moved over to London for its three month-run. No pressure then for the team that won four Tony awards at the ceremony three years ago.
To my mind, the music in this production is truly some of Rogers & Hammerstein’s best, and this production managed to hark back to the 1950s, that golden age of musicals. ‘Getting to Know You’, ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ and ‘Shall we Dance’ are some of the most celebrated songs from that era, and perhaps more so because the play has not been produced on Broadway or the West End as often as many others.
At the heart of the production was leading lady Kelli O’Hara, who quite spectacularly lived up to her billing as a Broadway darling. She captured the role of Anna Leonowens with aplomb, showing wit and vulnerability, mixed with power and raw emotion. She owned the role with her singing – who is Deborah Kerr again?
Her chief counterpart, the Japanese film star Ken Watanabe, was equally impressive. Whilst his performance in the opening couple of scenes felt somewhat weaker than those around him, he grew into the role and finished as the lead attraction. He managed to deftly capture the essence of King Mongkut of Siam, the deliberations of a leader trapped by growing colonial expansion in the Far East, with all of his power and disrespectful attitudes to women, yet also provided a comedic performance that would not have looked out of place in the Variety Performances of years gone by.
Tying O’Hara and Watanabe together was the masterful choreography of Christopher Gattelli, who somehow managed to get his stars to navigate the moving pillars in the wonderful ‘Shall we Dance’ section towards the play’s end.
Likewise, if Gattelli deserves praise for his work, a mention must be given to Catherine Zuber’s costume design. She managed to capture the exuberance of the British dress-style, but also the completely contrasting styles of the Orient. Neither the costumes nor the set design were overly ornate or complex, instead simple and delicate, amplifying the glamour of the historic Palladium venue.
To my mind though, the real stars were not the lead two. Don’t get me wrong, I thought their performances were exquisite and the final scene involving the King’s death nearly reduced me to tears. But the performances that blew me away were those of Naoko Mori (Lady Thiang), Na-Young Jeon (Tuptim) and Dean John-Wilson (Lun Tha).
Stepping into the formidable shoes of Tony-award winner Ruthie Ann Miles was no small feat for Mori, but she captured the role with qualities I had not expected. There was a tenderness and an emotion you don’t pick up as much in the famous 1956 film adaptation, and a stoicism in the face of difficulty.
That impressed, but I was utterly blown away by Jeon’s performance as Tuptim, a young princess from Burma gifted to the King. There is a distinct frailty to Tuptim’s character, thrust from her land into a new one, one where her people were widely ridiculed, and left to the mercy of a King who had more wives than you could shake a stick at. Yet at the heart of her frailty was a braveness, a braveness to stand up to the King and a braveness to pursue her love for the Burmese emissary Lun Tha, with John-Wilson excelling in the role. The braveness was exhibited in her vocals, demonstrating a power that shocked almost the entire audience. The exceptional applause Wilson and Jeon received for their renditions of ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’ and ‘I Have Dreamed’ were well-deserved, and served as a firm indication of their wonderful performances.
To echo the words of Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal, I doubt I’ll ever see a better production in my lifetime. Truly marvellous from start to finish.
The show will be running until Saturday 29 September at the Palladium and some tickets still remain. If you can go, go. Don’t hesitate as I can guarantee it’ll be money well spent.