Review – The King and I, London Palladium

Tuesday 18 September 2018

In a relatively theatre-free summer Phil’s last two and a half theatre outings have been to revivals of popular musicals which were turned into successful films starring the original stage star. Rather scarily Phil saw both these stage productions with the aforementioned stars.

We saw the rather good production of Little Shop of Horrors in Regents Park, the first attempt (after one of the hottest, driest summers in recent years) on the night the weather decided to adapt back to the norm. We were on “weather exchange” tickets held over from last year anyway so managed to see the superior Act 1 again on our renewed tickets and the slightly less engaging Act 2 for the first time. Phil saw the original Audrey, Ellen Greene at the Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter) way back in 1983.

The only other stage version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II‘s King and I Phil’s seen was also at the Palladium, with the original king, Yul Brynner in one of his 4,625 stage performances of the role (not to mention his Oscar-winning film performance). To have been one in the audience of his very many audiences watching the Vladivostok-born actor convincing us he is Siamese may not be a very exclusive club. Though as this was way back in 1979 (and he first performed the role in 1951) it’s a club clawing back its exclusivity as the years pass.

Brynner was fabulous. Of course he was. That’s what Phil’s memory tells him. His Anna back then was Virginia McKenna not best known for her singing skills not that it stopped her nabbing an Olivier Award.

No problem with the much-fêted Broadway star Kelli O’Hara. Her beautifully nuanced Anna Leonowens – who lugs her O2-scaled hoop skirts over to Siam in the early 1860s to teach King Mongkut’s children – has the poise and crisp clarity of a Julie Andrews and acts the role very amusingly and movingly.

If her king, Ken Watanabe, can’t really sing for nuts it’s a kind of Rex Harrison (who coincidently played the king in the non-musical film version of the story) spoken-sung role anyway. His pronounced accent mangles the words and sometimes renders his first number unintelligible. Well, the song is called “A Puzzlement”. If you can accept this you may, like Phil, find him playfully hilarious. The pair first appeared in this production on Broadway 3 years ago and share a wonderful chemistry which culminates in a joyous “Shall We Dance?”. This comes with added thrills as one wonders if Anna’s hoops are going to make it between the set’s sliding pillars. Both have stage presence to burn.

The young lovers, Na-Young Jeon (who according to her Wikipedia entry commutes between Amsterdam, London, and Seoul) and Dean John-Wilson (the West End’s original Aladdin) provide a tragic sub-plot and a pair of excellent voices. Then there’s Ruthie Ann Miles Tony-winning role as the King’s chief wife Lady Thiang. She gets probably the best song in the show. Her “Something Wonderful” lives up to its name. If this doesn’t pluck at your heart strings then knowledge of the tragedy that happened to the actress earlier this year will. It’s a wonder she was able to come over with the show at all.

It’s lavish in its costuming (Catherine Zuber), cast of 51 and orchestra of 29. Michael Yeargan‘s sets are relatively economical apart from the ship that slightly clunkily sails on in the opening scene. There’s a whiff of lavish panto about it. You half expect Julian Clary to be at the helm.

There was so much understandable cooing at the cuteness of the kids during “March of the Royal Siamese Children” it’s a wonder the audience weren’t put on a list.

Even the downer of Act 2’s 16 minute Uncle Tom’s Cabin sequence is handled well enough that it doesn’t seem to drag on as much as expected. But since the show runs at nearly three hours you wouldn’t really miss it.

It’s still banned in Thailand and whatever tweaking Bartlett Sher‘s Tony Award-winning production has done to counter criticisms of its dated values it seems to have largely worked, though some might be offended by the Western imperialism if they really want to be. Anna seems relatively modern in outlook. The conflict between her and the King is very much the centre of a pretty engrossing story which at times is pretty dark for a musical of this period.

Something wonderful.

Buyer beware. There are less than two weeks to catch this and O’Hara, Wantanabe and Miles do not appear at every performance. No danger of them matching Mr Brynner’s performance tally, etcetera, etcetera….




5 Responses to “Review – The King and I, London Palladium”

  1. Sal Says:

    As always, the Little Blog of Uncle Phil is a delight to read, but the King and I has always been racist slop – it willfully traduces the story of real people in a way that would never be acceptable, except that Western theatregoers remain oblivious to such remote goings-on. It is as if a musical about black America had Martin Luther King become enamoured with, and waltz with, Rosa Parks, who then gave birth to their love child, Bill Cosby. That is how accurate King and I is about Asian history. Never mind the sub-Charlie Chan racist dialogue and plot. Mr. Watanabe must be trying to suppress his own awareness of this blight, which would explain his swelling up with excess weight that rivals Johnny Rotten’s. Musically it is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s weaker scores, although Dean Martin used to sing a droll parody of “Hello, Young Lovers” that began, “Hello young lovers, get out of my car…”

  2. Rae Coates Says:

    Morning chaps , I love your writings ,however one little note .
    Yul Brynner was not born in Vladivostok , but on a smallish Island North of Japan called , and forgive this spelling , called Sackaleem . I was Mr Brynner’s personal dresser here at The Palladium and on tour in The States .
    Keep up the good works —–you are always right in your appraisals .

    • Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

      Blame Wikipedia and the rest of the internet who seem to think it was Vladivostok too. But how fascinating. Feel free to share any tales of the experience.

  3. Sal Says:

    Apparently a dresser was not required for Mr. Brynner’s fabled photo sessions with G.P. Lynes:

    • Rae Coates Says:

      Clearly not ! , I worked with him when he was 60 and he was still in great shape . I had seen one of these photos before , but had no idea who took them – Thank you .

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