Review Round-Ups

Did The King and I in the West End make critics whistle a happy tune?

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is revived at London’s Palladium

Kelli O'Hara and Billy Marlow in The King and I
Kelli O'Hara and Billy Marlow in The King and I
© Matthew Murphy

Daisy Bowie-Sell, WhatsOnStage


"Shall we dance? If Bartlett Sher's glorious revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's fifth musical does anything, it dances. Glinting and gliding, it waltzes glamorously across the huge Palladium stage with effortless grace."

"It wouldn't be an overstatement to say that Kelli O'Hara is made for this part. Her acting skills and delicate but rich voice come together to imbue Anna with an engaging compassion and humanity. Listening to her delivering those songs – the majority of them are hers – is hearing them as they should be. Ken Watanabe, making his West End debut here (in fact they both are), is not a great singer but his King is brilliantly funny, sharp and betrays moments of convincing vulnerability. He overdoes it a little in his main song "A Puzzlement", and tips into melodrama. "

"The niggles aside, it's very hard not to fall for The King and I, which features some of the loveliest songs in musical theatre, here sung by an absolutely crack cast. "I Whistle a Happy Tune" is a joyful earworm, "Hello Young Lovers" soars with sadness and "Getting to Know You" is an upbeat tribute to finding common ground and mutual respect."

Ann Treneman, The Times


"Book now. It's a hit. The Japanese film star Ken Watanabe was apparently nervous when approached by Bartlett Sher, the director, to play the King. I can't think why. He is a powerhouse. (Watching him, I thought: Yul who?) Watanabe makes us see (and feel) the conflicts of a man whose status is almost god-like but who knows that change must come. "Barbaric!" he cries when he hears what other countries say about his kingdom and sets out to prove otherwise."

"Kelli O'Hara does not just play Anna, she owns the part. Her voice is crystal, Julie Andrews perfect, and as she sings her first song, that really rather irritating "Whistle a Happy Tune", you just melt into this revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 musical. It won a clutch of Tony Awards in New York in 2015 and now the show, including the main stars, has come to the West End."

Paul Taylor, The Independent


"This script, which reinstates some lines from a discarded draft, makes the character's political predicament more pronounced. Should he open his country up to progress, or throw a wall round it as protection from the colonial designs of the British and the French?"

"The production has a cast of 51, featuring the excellent Naoko Mori as the king's head wife (her rapt, glowing version of "Something Wonderful" is precisely that) and Na-Young Jeon who is piercingly vulnerable as Tuptim, the girl who is sent to the Mongkut as a present from the King of Burma."

"But Sher stages it so that, instead of seeming like naïve children, the Siamese women's chorus offer a cheeky, confrontational critique of Western appropriation: "They feel so sentimental/About the oriental…" The joke is on us."

"Even if I never felt there was much kinship between the story's dual protagonists, O'Hara, who won a Tony award for her performance, is a delight. She suggests a woman who is both spirited and sweet-natured and not only enunciates every syllable of her songs but invests them with emotion. I've never heard "Hello Young Lovers" better delivered: when O'Hara announces "I know how it feels to have wings on your heels" a light comes into her eyes as if she is reliving her past"

The King and I
The King and I
© Matthew Murphy

Michael Billington, The Guardian


"But the focus on regal insecurity and the threat to Siam's integrity only serves to complicate the musical. I found myself asking a simple question: why on earth would Mrs Leonowens want to stay? If there is one thing worse than a despot, which the king undoubtedly is, it is a neurotic despot."

"In a predominantly Asian cast, there is good work from Na-Young Jeon as a renegade lover and Naoko Mori as the king's head wife Michael Yeargan's colourful designs avoid false exoticism and the pit band, under Stephen Ridley, plays excellently. The musical itself, however, remains, a problem to be solved as much as a show to be enjoyed."

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph


"It was last at the Palladium in 2000, starring Elaine Paige. In this production, directed by Bartlett Sher, originating from New York, Kelli O'Hara, transfixingly self-possessed and serenely smiling, faces the stern but not ceaselessly scowling, hands-on-hips presence of Ken Watanabe, in roles made famous by Deborah Kerr and Oscar-winning Yul Brynner in the 1956 film."

"In short, the whole affair offers a satisfying blend of bombast and subtlety. Many of the songs remain transcendently lovely, chief among them "I Whistle a Happy Tune", "Hello, Young Lovers", "Getting to Know You", and that invitation to madly polka "Shall We Dance?". They are exquisitely sung by O'Hara, reprising her Tony-winning performance. Beyond those classics, though, other kinds of sophistication abound and the second half opens with the (often excised) Western People Funny, in which the royal wives try to wear western hoop-skirts and giggle at the assumption that these contraptions signify cultural superiority."

Tim Bano, The Stage


"When Christopher Renshaw revived the show in Australia in 1991 he insisted that, for the first time, all the Asian roles were played by Asian actors. With Filipino actor Tony Marinyo in the title role, taken over by Lou Diamond Phillips on Broadway a few years later, the musical revealed itself to be relatively sophisticated in its depiction of two cultures meeting."

"Na-Young Jeon's knockout rendition of "My Lord and Master" brings out the darker side of Mongkut's regime. As Mongkut's concubine Tuptim, her anxious face and flighty movements show a life lived in fear and owned by a man she doesn't love."

Her narration of the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" ballet in act two is mighty, as is the whole set piece with its Jerome Robbins choreography; a beautiful, thrilling 20-minute interlude that synthesises Eastern and Western cultures."