Apart from the shock of it not being at the Palladium (which has hosted three major London revivals of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, including this version’s first West End outing in 2018), Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Center Theater production of The King and I remains in decent shape as it arrives for a brief season at the Dominion. Essentially, this is the touring edition, slightly less lush and expansive than it was in New York originally, with a cut-down orchestra and smaller cast.
Then again, Sher’s was always a cooler, less extravagant take on the faux orientalism of this 1951 tuner which, to modern eyes and ears, is a somewhat problematic white person’s idea of what nineteenth-century southeast Asia was like. It may not be a dynamic night in the theatre, but it remains a constantly engaging one, watchable at worst and entrancing at best, unfolding at a leisurely pace, that could be construed as soporific if you were feeling uncharitable.
Michael Yeargan’s muted, elegant sets, conjuring up a cargo ship, a royal palace and a gigantic benign Buddha from apparently nowhere, look good, if occasionally a bit cramped within the Dominion’s proscenium arch, and Catherine Zuber’s Tony-winning costumes are flat-out gorgeous. The orchestra, playing Robert Russell Bennett’s timeless arrangements, sounds fine if a little underpowered at times.
The staging throughout is crisp and classy, a particularly striking moment being the full company walk down in the run-up to the tragic final scene, suggesting a communality in the loss of a beloved monarch, that transcends time and place. Choreographer Christopher Gattelli wisely preserves Jerome Robbins’s exquisite, witty dances for the centrepiece “Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet that drives the drama of much of the second act, delivered here with precision and passion by a superb company of dancers.
As Anna Leonowens, the feisty British governess in Siam to educate the King’s numerous children, Helen George (from TV’s Call the Midwife, as the advertising would have it, as though we are still in panto season) bears a remarkable initial resemblance to Deborah Kerr in the 1956 movie version but only scratches the surface of this iconic musical theatre role. George plays ‘Mrs Anna’ with a mannered cut glass accent, a watery warbling soprano and a look of permanent surprise. She captures Anna’s inner fortitude but fails to suggest the roiling pain beneath this astonishing woman’s decision to uproot herself and her young son to the other side of a mostly uncharted planet, or the unspoken erotic attraction to Darren Lee’s King. Her upper lip isn’t so much stiff as perpetually frozen, which drives a fatal stake into the emotional heart of the second half, where we should see Anna’s vulnerability as well as her strength.
Lee is pretty terrific: a boisterous man-child with a keen intelligence, rough-hewn charm and an increasing unease at his place in the ever-expanding world. He’s often very funny but when he needs gravitas, he finds it. It’s a fascinating performance.
Cezarah Bonner as his principal wife matches him as a figure of great spirit and sensitivity. Her singing voice is probably lighter than we’re used to when delivering what is arguably the score’s finest number, the aria of acceptance and unselfish love “Something Wonderful”, but she acts the hell out of it and is truly compelling. There’s an understated but moving moment at the very end between Bonner’s Lady Thiang and Caleb Lagayan, impressively tormented as her son and heir to the throne, that feels like a transition between the antiquated and the new, and it’s at points like this that Sher’s production truly soars.
Dean John-Wilson, a holdover from the ‘18 Palladium season, looks magnificent and is in decent voice but seems to be going through the motions as doomed lover Lun Tha. Opposite him, Marienella Philips fields a beautiful, floaty soprano and sensitive acting as beleaguered slave girl Tuptim, “gifted” from Burmese to Siamese king like a piece of meat, but reads as slightly too mature. Ms Philips is a cover for Anna, and I suspect she’d be excellent.
Richard Rodgers’s haunting music is probably the main reason why this staid but frequently lovely warhorse still gets trotted out periodically. Songs like “Hello Young Lovers”, “Shall We Dance” and “Whistle a Happy Tune”, with Oscar Hammerstein II’s neat, heartfelt lyrics retain their power to transport.
Nearer to operetta than the modern conception of a musical, The King and I remains a beautifully crafted period piece. This iteration is unlikely to garner it many new fans, but even those who find themselves unmoved and unstirred will realise they’re in the present of something (mostly) wonderful.