Originally performed on Broadway in 1951, Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King And I has enjoyed a legacy of nearly 70 years as one of the great classics of musical theatre. So putting on a revival is not for the faint-hearted: the expectations are justifiably high.
Yet director Bartlett Sher has not only deftly navigated his way through retaining all the things audiences love about the show, but also invigorated it with a thought-provoking, contemporary slant on its themes.
Set in Bangkok in the 1860s and based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher brought over by the imperious king to teach his many wives and children, the show sheds a spotlight on colonisation, assimilation, bigamy and slavery.
Now through the viewpoint of today’s world, Sher also makes us stop and think about educating women in the Third World, gender equality and interracial relationships, proving this classic show is indeed timeless in its message.
But there are other reasons to love this revival. The set design is nothing short of sumptuous, including a life-size ship that Anna and her son arrive on during the opening scene, and the costumes are simply dazzling. The diverse cast also includes some impossibly cute child actors, who more than once elicited heartfelt “aahs” from the audience.
Kelli O’Hara and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe are perfectly cast in their principle roles as the British schoolteacher and the King torn between East and West.
While the latter infused the show with humour, the former’s beautiful vocal skills breathed new life into such beloved songs as Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance?
A visual feast for the eyes and soul.
The King And I runs at the London Palladium until September 29. Details: kingandimusical.co.uk