5. THE KING AND I
London Palladium, until September 29
Most theatre fans will have fond memories of when they first saw “The King and I”, whether of watching the movie with their families or seeing an earlier production. Even people who don’t think they know musical theatre can sing along to “Getting to Know You” (just don’t sing along in the theatre!). But apart from the Broadway production that begot this West End transfer, this current rendition is the best there’s been.
And this is mainly due to its star, Kelli O’Hara, showing London what a true musical genius of a performer can do. O’Hara is probably the greatest soprano working in musical theatre today, and she’s providing a master class on acting through singing and on restraint as a powerful tool. Having this chance to catch her one last time in her Tony-winning role is a lucky opportunity that no one should miss. Her “Hello Young Lovers” is without a doubt the loveliest interpretation of the song ever witnessed and the most glorious musical achievement currently happening in London right now. That film star Ken Watanabe has also returned to the show, to reprise his role as the King of Siam, adds to this production’s appeal. His King easily alternates between goofy and cruel, yet he is always completely charming. And the recent return of the great Ruthie Ann Miles to the stage, here sharing the role of Lady Thiang, would be reason enough to see this production.
Catching this talent while you can is a must, although I have realised upon my latest visit that “The King and I” is kind of a weird show. It’s not necessarily that it has aged poorly, like other Golden Age shows have, but there’s an obvious direction the show would follow today (that someone at some point would ask Anna and/or the King, “Why do we have to pretend to be westernised to prove we aren’t barbarians? And why do we have to prove anything to prevent invaders from taking over our country illegally?” after which would come a story of being proud of your heritage or something) instead of the odd route it takes (“giant skirts and high heels will prevent conquest!”). Nevertheless, it’s a classic for a reason, and this is the production to see while you can.
Southwark Playhouse, until September 1
The fact that I’m recommending this show even though the small black box theatre is not air-conditioned proves how much fun it is. Even though the audience (and the cast!) was dying from the heat, everyone was having a ball, because the exuberant cast’s energy mixed with the fun music makes for a winning, perfect-for-summer combination.
“Bring it On” is inspired by the famous Kirsten Dunst movie (possibly the best movie ever) and subsequent franchise but with a completely different story – a move I greatly appreciated from book writer Jeff Whitty, as it lets the musical stand on its own merit instead of being compared to a much tighter movie. With mostly vivacious music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, and Amanda Green, “Bring it On” makes it easy to have a good time. There may be too many lackluster ballads, and they generally fail to further the story or the character development, but even just a few of the lively ensemble numbers make it all worth it. Especially given the very young, fresh (and yes inexperienced) cast, that’s really where this show shines and where everything seems to come to invigorating life.
It’s not a great musical – it’s not going to be considered one of the classics of the age or anything – but it’s an incredibly easy show to enjoy right now. The humour and energy and of course the cheerleading will have you smiling pretty much the whole time. And, I can’t think of any show that will make young people more excited to return to school.
Victoria Palace, open run
You can’t talk about musical theatre anymore without mentioning Lin-Manuel Miranda’s behemoth masterwork, and that’s for good reason. “Hamilton”, one of the most astounding, brilliant musicals ever written, has changed the game, infiltrated all realms of culture, and proved that musical theatre is relevant. One of the few properties to actually surpass the insane hype surrounding it, “Hamilton” has the most incredible score, and it’s the only show that teaches you more than an entire year’s worth of U.S. History could, all while being entertaining instead of like school.
If you are one of the few people who haven’t yet memorised the entire score, “Hamilton” tells the story of one of America’s formerly-overlooked-but-now-most-famous founding fathers, who worked his way out of a life of poverty in the British West Indies. His determination and brilliance helped him escape endless trauma and become an influential part of the American revolution and the foundation of the new republic. Yet his ambition and wit get him into trouble too, giving him a lifetime of experiences most rappers would love to write about. A hip-hop musical about the founding fathers seemed crazy at first, but now it’s entirely accepted as incontestable that this type of music should tell this story.
So I know you can’t buy tickets for this weekend, but don’t worry, it’s not going anywhere. It will be playing for a looong time. And if you are the semi-spontaneous sort (it is done two days in advance, so it’s not the thrilling ‘ahh I won and the show starts in 30 minutes!’ type of exciting ticket lottery), you can enter the daily ticket lottery for only 10 quid at this website. Otherwise, you can start looking for tickets for a few months in advance (the benefit of seeing it in London and not New York). Be warned that, because of its cultural infiltration, the show has become its own sort of tourist attraction, and the audience can be rowdy. The Delfont Mackintosh staff at the Palace can’t (and won’t) do much to curb the talking, the singing along, and the phone use (and subsequent filming and photo taking), but if you can stomach that (which, to be fair, is increasingly happening at all sorts of shows nowadays), you’ll have the time of your life.
2. FUN HOME
Young Vic, until September 1
I have so much faith in this extraordinary musical that I’m recommending it even though I haven’t seen this production yet (next weekend!). With an accomplished, emotional score by Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, “Fun Home” feels so intimate and so real that you’ll feel as if you are a part of the family. Based on Alison Bechdel’s beloved graphic novel about her family and her childhood, the musical weaves between present and past as Alison looks at three different stages of her life to consider her relationship with her parents.
“Fun Home” is the rare kind of show that lets the poignancy of quiet family life stand on its own merit, without booming belted stand-and-plant solos or excessive dance numbers to distract from the emotion. It’s a difficult show that relies on the abilities of child actors to do a lot of the heavy lifting, but when it works and you connect to the material, it’s a uniquely special theatrical experience.
Cambridge Theatre, open run
So unlike the rest of this list, “Matilda” isn’t recent to London by any means. But I realise that there are no British musicals on this list of what to see in London right now, which just seems wrong. Luckily, I’m not just including this to tick off a “British musical” box – “Matilda” is really and truly the best British musical, modern or classic, and I will happily argue with anyone who says otherwise.
This genius adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved book proves Tim Minchin as one of the best lyricists in the business right now. While I eagerly wait for his next project, I’m grateful that “Matilda” is still playing in the West End since it features the only truly great, complex original score that we’ve seen here in far too long. And not only is the score beautiful, affecting, and funny, the book is one of the best of modern musicals, in a time where musical book-writing as an art seems to be given less and less respect. Although it’s ostensibly a show for children (a little girl I once sat next to had an accident, bless her), Dennis Kelly’s intricate, eloquent book and Minchin’s beyond clever lyrics ensure that even adults will need to pay attention and, like the show’s heroine, use their smarts.
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