It is nine years since Elaine Paige led a sumptuous but emotionally inert production of this glorious operatic musical – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s penultimate collaboration – at the London Palladium, so there’s plenty of room for improvement in Jeremy Sams’ revival.
As in his splendid production of The Sound of Music, Sams finds real heart in the story of a British governess hired to control a bunch of children and their despotic father. He also nearly has the king whip a bare-backed, rebellious Burmese lover, and the saffron-robed monks loomingly suggest internal upheaval as well as culture clash.
Maria Friedman as Anna Leonowens, the officer’s widow who arrives in Bangkok from Singapore to take up the teaching post, and Daniel Dae Kim (the 40-year-old South Korean actor best known for playing the enigmatic Jin in Lost on television), 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, and in her tumultuous crinolines – the golden, glittering one makes her look like a festive pineapple – she does manage to invoke both Deborah Kerr in the film (whose voice was dubbed) and a modern sensibility of missionary valour.
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. Designer Robert Jones hangs a simple chandelier over a stage edged with boardwalk and ornamental stream, the king’s palace dominated by a gold, swagged curtain and a long, wooden dragon-headed stairway-sideboard arrangement.
The march of the Siamese children and the Uncle Tom ballet are, as usual, over-long, and you start pining secretly for an hour of Herod, but Susan Kikuchi’s choreography (she also did the Palladium show) has good Chinese Opera effects and the costumes are a Thai eyeful.
The leads dance the sexiest polka ever written as the central conjunction of East and West, and Jee Hyun Lim as the king’s chief concubine doesn’t disappoint with my favourite song, “Something Wonderful.” Fun to spot, too, a bespectacled David Yip as a Siamese functionary and Michael Simkins as a clammy diplomat, Anna’s old flame.