Monday, 2 July 2018

 

The King and I at the London Palladium


It's been a fairly light year for high-profile openings and Broadway transfers in London. There are some fringe venues getting great musicals in, like Southwark Playhouse with Bring it On and The Other Palace with the return of its geeky space comedy Eugenius!, but the bigger theatres mostly have some solid long runners in them right now. Which is great for them as it means the shows are clearly doing very well, but for someone who's seen most of what's out by now, new additions always excite me very much. And none more so this year than Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

Based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, the original story is inspired by the real-life experiences of Anna Leonowens who was a governess to the children of the King of Siam back in the 1860s. In the theatrical adaptation, in addition to plenty of song and dance numbers, Anna has transformed into a school teacher who moves with her young son from Singapore to Siam to teach the King's children and wives in a move to modernize the country and its people's beliefs.

While it was the King's decision to bring Anna and her western education into his palace, their relationship is a strained one as their mind-sets are so vastly different. For example, Anna is very modern for her time, fighting for equal rights for the women in the palace, while the King is in a polygamous relationship with wives that have even been gifted to him by other powerful men. And he will not tolerate it if they love someone else and do not devote their lives to him.

Despite Anna and the King constantly being on opposite ends of one argument or another, an unlikeable friendship blooms and a mutual respect; even if they disagree on just about everything...

The musical opening at the London Palladium in the West End this week is a Broadway transfer from the 2015 production, which won a slew of prestigious Tony Awards, including Best New Revival, Best Leading Actress (Kelli O'Hara for the role of Anna) and Best Featured Actress (Ruthie Ann Miles for Lady Thiang, the King's head wife). Excitingly, both award-winning actresses as well as screen actor Ken Watanabe of The Last Samurai fame (who made his stage debut as the King on Broadway), have joined the London run as well.

This means that while I saw a preview performance last week, the main cast was already on top form, as if they'd been playing the roles for much longer than a few weeks, which of course they have. Kelli O'Hara's performance was particularly sensational, one of the most gorgeous voices I've ever had the pleasure to listen to in the theatre. Another stand out was Na-Young Jeon as young Tuptim, one of the King's wives whose sub story showed a painfully heart-wrenching reality in an otherwise heavily romanticised adaptation.

Clocking in at just under three-hours, Anna and the King is quite a long show and you can really feel it in the second half. While the first act is over in the blink of an eye as so much happens and you are really pulled into the story of Anna and the King of Siam, the part after the interval noticeable drags as we watch a full-length theatrical performance put on in the palace for a guest, which does not elevate the main plot whatsoever.

On the plus side, the musical does start at the earlier time of 7pm so even with the longer running time you won't be out of the theatre too late. But for enjoyment purposes I definitely feel the second act could've done with some cutting down and a renewed focus on Anna and the King, rather than the a myriad of subplots.

Anna and the King is a fascinating portrayal of the differences between East and West in the 19th century through the eyes of two well-defined and interesting characters. While in today's age the characters' choices may look wholly old-fashioned, both the King and Anna were very progressive for their time in their respective societies and the inevitable friction caused created just enough tension and drama to make the story even more engaging, while not detracting from the loveliness of the show either.

With captivating performances and a gentle score, Anna and the King is a very sweet and innocent musical. I'm delighted this sensational production has made its way across the pond, so British audiences too can relish the wonder that is Kelli O'Hara alongside a fantastic cast, stunning costume designs and the wonderfully iconic music of Rodgers and Hammerstein.



The King and I is playing at the London Palladium and is currently booking until 29 September 2018. Book your tickets here.


🎵 Listening to: Come From Away – Welcome to the Rock


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