After success at the London Palladium with The Sound of Music, director Jeremy Sams and designer Robert Jones turn their attention to another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic in an even bigger arena: the 1951 Broadway classic The King and I staged in-the-round for 20 performances only, care of impresario Raymond Gubbay, in the 5,222-seat Royal Albert Hall (See News, 5 Mar 2009).
Set in the late 19th century, The King and I tells the story of the British widow and governess Anna Leonowens, who’s brought to the court of Siam as tutor to the King’s children. Once within the sumptuous Royal Palace of Bangkok, Anna and the King grow to understand and respect one another and learn about each other’s cultures. The score includes “Shall We Dance”, “I Whistle a Happy Tune”, “Hello Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You”.
Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, The King and I has music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. The musical was famously made into a 1956 film starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. The stage version was last seen in the West End at the London Palladium in 2000/1 in a revival that starred first Elaine Paige and then Josie Lawrence (See News, 5 Sep 2001).
This new £3 million production stars Maria Friedman as Anna and Daniel Dae-Kim (from TV’s Lost) as the King. Also featured in the 75-strong company are Jee Hyum Lim (as Lady Thiang), Ethan Le Phong (Lun Tha), Yanle Zhong (Tuptim), David Yip (The Kralahome), Michael Simkins (Sir Edward Ramsay), Stephen Scott (Captain Orton) and three sets of children. The production is choreographed by Susan Kikuchi, with lighting by Andrew Bridge and sound by Bobby Aitken, and the 60-strong Royal Philharmonic Orchestra is conducted by Gareth Valentine.
In last week’s packed openings diary, the only night available for The King and I’s press performance was Saturday, which put some critics – notably the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer - in a less receptive mood from the get-go. Beyond the scheduling, critics had problems with the “dated” material from the “least enjoyable” of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals and most felt that, despite the creative team’s best efforts to fill the space, the scale of the Albert Hall creates too much distance from the characters and the action, making “intimacy near impossible”. Still, music and production values rate highly, and there was abundant praise for Maria Friedman - who is “born” to play the role of Anna and boasts both “star quality” and an “immaculate” singing voice – and for Daniel Dae Kim’s “admirably burly, intransigent” King. In the end, audiences can expect to be “royally entertained”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “As in his splendid production of The Sound of Music, Jeremy Sams finds real heart in the story of a British governess hired to control a bunch of children and their despotic father … Maria Friedman as Anna Leonowens … and Daniel Dae Kim prove a very good pairing. She’s lovely, and he’s charmingly susceptible, less gruesome than Yul Brynner and a lot less bald; he’s even got a top-knot. Friedman’s singing, especially, is meltingly gorgeous … The challenge of the piece is that it’s really a play with songs, and although the Rodgers’ underscoring is always interesting – and beautifully played here by the orchestra under Gareth Valentine’s musical direction – there are long passages of song and dialogue that get lost in the vast arena. Still, this in-the-round production of The King and I looks magnificent, and fills the Albert Hall well … The leads dance the sexiest polka ever written as the central conjunction of East and West.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “This was my seventh show in a single week, with the producer Raymond Gubbay cruelly arranging the press night for a Saturday, thereby screwing up the weekend for weary old hacks like me ... The King and I has also long struck me as the least enjoyable of Rodgers and Hammerstein's hit musicals. The score is undoubtedly superb, with a succession of melodic, memorable tunes, but the narrative about a Victorian English governess at the court of the autocratic King of Siam is curiously static and uninvolving ... However, I must concede there are some good things in Jeremy Sams' production, chief among them Maria Friedman, who brings splendid star quality to the role of Anna ... Friedman has exactly the right cut-glass English accent and manners, while also suggesting a warm and tender heart. She sings superbly, and wears a succession of preposterous crinoline dresses with fine style, even if they do make her resemble an inverted exotic mushroom. There is fine work, too, from Daniel Dae Kim as the King ... The cod Chinese Opera ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin is tedious and needs to be pensioned off, and the subsidiary love interest never ignites. But the show's musical standards, with excellent playing from the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, are outstanding, and, despite my grumbles, I expect most people will leave The King and I feeling royally entertained.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Although the musical values of Jeremy Sams' production are high, the scale seems wrong. Even from a good seat, the characters are distant, and in the more intimate moments one feels as if one were watching table-tennis in the Colosseum. Of all Rodgers and Hammerstein's musicals, this one seems the most dated. The attempt by Mrs Anna Leonowens to impose Victorian values on the household of the feudal Siamese King smacks of imperial condescension ... Admittedly, audiences know most of the songs by heart, which is just as well given the arena's acoustic variability. But the evening's strength lies in the quality of the singing. Maria Friedman - kitted out in a crinolined ballgown that looks like a golden tent - sings immaculately and suggests a growing affection for Daniel Dae Kim's admirably burly, intransigent monarch ... People think of The King and I as a ‘big’ show, but the best numbers are solos or duets. And the arena only comes into its own for ‘The March of the Siamese Children’ and the second-act ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin ... Robert Jones' set and costumes, and Gareth Valentine's conducting of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra add to the atmosphere of visual and aural opulence. But, while the audience seemed happy enough, I felt that inside Sams' epic production was a smaller show signalling furiously to be let out.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “What next, My Fair Lady in Wembley Stadium? ... As I watched Maria Friedman trying to form a genuine relationship with Daniel Dae Kim, another football analogy came to mind: Rodgers and Hammerstein 1, Albert Hall United 3 ... The show’s point is that each gives the other a lesson in humility. She finds him imperious, he finds her imperialist. And that means the issues that the show entertainingly raises are still alive ... This might count for more if the dialogue didn’t become muzzy, and intimacy near impossible, in the vast acreage of the Albert Hall. Still, let’s not get heavy about a show so reliant on music and spectacle. Sams and Jones fill the stage with wives, tots, monks and more blue-and-orange silk than you’d find in a Phuket theme-park. The Asian version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that the King stages for Queen Victoria’s emissary is imaginative, visually gorgeous and the evening’s big success ... The principals are as strong as the space allows ... Friedman ensures that it doesn’t become Polyanna and the King. She’s earnest, decent, melodious and real, while Kim, though not as bold or bald as Yul Brynner in the film, exudes curt command. I’d like to see, hear and watch them polka to “Shall We Dance” again. But elsewhere.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “The King and I, one of the most lavish musicals ever dreamed up, should fit perfectly into the opulent splendour of the Albert Hall … Yet while this visit to 1860s Siam is never less than enjoyable, we oddly feel as though we’re watching something beautiful from a long way off, as if through a gauze screen. More emotional welly would be welcome. Director Jeremy Sams has made a peculiar decision for his in-the-round-ish production, which is to stage nearly all of the action in the rear half of the playing area … How I wished, though, that someone, anyone, had made use of the boats sitting so temptingly on designer Robert Jones’ ornamental lake … This 1951 piece came as the pinnacle of an astonishing eight years of creativity for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and is duly stuffed with enduring classics. The honey-voiced Friedman, to this part born, has fun with the standards ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ and ‘Getting to Know You’, even if the evening’s high point, ‘Shall We Dance’, doesn’t leave quite the indelible impression that it should, as East-West differences between Anna and the King melt away on a deserted dancefloor … No one could fail to smile at the delightful parade of royal children, bowing before their stern father … Even if the whole thing doesn’t make you want to dance, you’ll certainly hum along happily.”