Seeing “The King and I” at Lincoln Center Theatre three years ago (I remember because it was my birthday) was a magical theatrical experience, one that felt majestic and classic, as well as classy. From the opening scene with that enormous boat gliding into the orchestra, to the last moving moments, I was enraptured with its perfect direction and flawless performances. With that Broadway production’s transfer to London, complete with its top two stars, Kelli O’Hara finally gets to show the West End what incredible talent looks/sounds like and Ken Watanabe keeps getting to make audiences laugh. But the production feels like the final moments of “Pippin” when compared to the Broadway incarnation – like when everything is stripped away to show what the stage would be like without magic. Sure the lights and costumes and music are all there, but it feels like the magic is missing. The lackluster feel is partly due to the theatre it’s in (the Palladium), partly due to a West End cast that just isn’t as top notch, and partly due to the wackiness of the source material being exposed in this new light.
And you can’t really blame the audiences for reacting like they’re at one (well you can, and I will, but it’s a little understandable) because the show itself is kind of weird. I never noticed it before, and I’m not sure why it was so glaring now, especially since the director (Barlett Sher) is the same as on Broadway. Maybe it takes a familiarity with the source material to finally get to that point where you can focus on just how strange it is. But the starkness with how this is presented – with none of the glitz or grandeur or sumptuousness of the previous production – exposes the problems of the book.
“The King and I” tells the story of Anna Leonowens, real life English lady who traveled to Siam to serve as a schoolteacher to the children of King Mongkut in the 1860s. One of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved works, the show includes familiar song after familiar song, and is so well known for a reason. The score is gorgeous and for the most part sounds great here. But the book falls flat. Okay so Anna and her son (will he ever not be annoying?) arrive in Siam and ask the King’s men where her house is. They tell her she is to stay at the palace. But the King had promised her her own house! She needs privacy! No one argues with the King (not YET), so she stays in the palace while she waits to talk to him about his promise. Um then in the next line we learn that more than a YEAR has gone by, and she’s still waiting but she loves the kids and loves teaching them and so you’re like well fun I guess I don’t mind too much that we made a huge time jump and wow we’re going to keep on making them. Discussion about her house seems to be like most of the first act. I get that it’s one aspect chosen to be representative of the communication barriers and the fact that independent women were foreign to this culture, but it seems like a lame thing to focus on. The King is always frustrated with this woman who keeps combating him at every turn, and Ken wins the audience over with his song “Puzzlement” even though you can’t really understand what he’s saying when it’s sooo fast. It’s honestly more difficult to understand than it was before but eh he’s such a good actor and he’s so winning in most of his book scenes.
Then we watch the two lovers, Lun Tha (Dean-John Wilson, in freaking everything it seems) and Tuptim (Na-Young Jeon) sing about how much they love each other but how they can only meet in the shadows because, well, Lun Tha brought Tuptim over from Burma as a gift to the King, so she is like one of his slave-wives now. Why they didn’t just flee before he presented her as a gift to the king is beyond me. Also what is he still doing in town years after delivering her? They both sing the roles decently, although both cracked a few times. Their voices might not be 100% fitted to these parts. I think Jeon’s upper register is still a little too weak for 8 shows a week and not to be mean but I missed Ashley Park’s incredible voice.
Anna’s relationship with the King stresses you out most of the time, because she isn’t afraid to speak her mind but he’s the King and is like no one fights with me! Et cetera! Et cetera! Oh so in the beginning Anna uses the phrase ‘et cetera’ and the King is like WHAT IS THIS YOU SAY and she explains what it means and so then EVERY SINGLE FUCKING LINE from then on the King uses it and for the first few times it’s funny but then at the 10th time it is infuriating and by the 90th time he says it you are literally breathing fire. It is so annoying Hammerstein! Literally my least favorite decision Hams has ever made.
Anna also has a very tense relationship with his Wife #1, Lady Thiang (Naoko Mori) and strives to win her over even though Lady Thiang is intermittently jealous and encouraging Anna and the King to become closer. It’s never comprehensible why she would want that. Mori is fine as Thiang, but she doesn’t bring anything more to the role than how it is written. Which is fine – no one ever really can bring more to what’s written simply by using their acting and singing skills. No one except Ruthie Ann Miles, that is, the Lady Thiang from Broadway who won the Tony for her performance. She was supposed to be in this production – and the production itself refuses to say that she isn’t in it even though, well, she’s not (she’s still in the programme and the website and everything but she isn’t in it) – but she had to take time to herself due to her personal tragedy. It was an honor to see her performance on Broadway, and seeing this show again made me realize just how astonishing she is, turning what is usually just a whatever role into a fully fleshed out character whose motivations were clear and understandable for the first time.
So the big drama of Act II is that an English diplomat is going to visit from Singapore and bring other hoity Englishmen, and the Siamese have to use this visit to convince them how great they are SO THE ENGLISH DON’T TAKE THEM OVER. Yeah so England was threatening to take over Siam as a protectorate, and everyone, literally everyone, just accepts that the burden is on the Siamese to prove that they aren’t barbarians and so the British, um, shouldn’t take them over. It’s so f-ing weird, and no one even mentions the thought that decent people first have, which is, why is it on them to convince the whites that they are decent people so the whites don’t steal their land? If you were unfamiliar with the show, you would surely expect that Anna’s whole purpose as an intermediary between the two parties would be to take the opportunity to say ‘hey wait a minute old British friends. These people shouldn’t have to prove to you that they are worthy of KEEPING THEIR COUNTRY AND FREEDOM! And isn’t it patently obvious that the people threatening to takeover another land and their inhabitants would be the real barbarians?’ No, no one says any of this. They have to prove that they are western-friendly, and that’s that. I get that it’s old-fashioned but surely people have always been able to see that taking over other lands is wrong? no?
So they prepare for this important visit by dressing everyone in Western garb and singing the moooost racist song. But it works out because Tuptim reads her play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, called ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’, and they do a TWENTY MINUTE BALLET ABOUT IT and honestly it’s the best most amazing thing to have in a big musical because WHAAAT. It’s so f-ing random and amazing and we’ve been singing “Tricky little Topsy!” all day err day. SO RANDOM. Well it’s not too random, the story at least, because Tuptim is a slave and she’s narrating a play directly at the King about how bad slavery is and how evil King Simon of Legree (the best) was to poor Eliza (run Eliza run! run Eliza run! erma it’s amazing). But having this crazy 20 minute ballet about it is pretty damn ballsy to put in the middle of a musical and it’s so good. I’m obsessed. I love the choreography of this ballet, with Eliza running away by hopping on one foot. Anyway Buddha saves Eliza and then the lovers meet again and discuss how Anna always helped them meet by going out in the courtyard or whatever with them and you’re like huh we never saw that, that’s weird to just mention like that instead of ever showing I mean we’ve had three hours to do so. They decide to run away. And then Anna and the King have a beautiful dance (“Shall We Dance”) and seem to be friends and there’s also a weird spark there and you’re like holy crap that’s powerful but that’s kind of not the show I want to see and then the guards bring in Tuptim who escaped and they’re like we’re gonna kill her now and Anna is like no you’re a barbarian and everyone cries and Anna decides to leave Siam for good (but the veg fest…) but then the King has heart sadness and is dying from Anna calling him a barbarian so Anna decides to stay. What. Et cetera.
The book is kind of frustrating, as you could tell from my repeated stabbing of the capslock key, and the pacing feels off. At least a good twenty minutes could have and should have been cut (but not my Uncle Tom ballet! Never!). I don’t remember this show ever feeling as long, and unnecessarily so. It is a satisfactory production, but it isn’t the magical splendor I remember. Well, except for the performance of our Anna Leonowens. As Miss Anna, O’Hara’s performance seems like it has been marinating for the past three years because it’s even more nuanced, touching, and gorgeous than it was before – and she deservedly won a Tony for it before. I am not surprised, because she is the best working soprano in musical theatre today, but I didn’t even realize how much more realized her performance could be. It’s a marvel and it’s worth sitting through the three hours of sometimes-nonsense to witness her thrilling performance. Her “Hello Young Lovers” is the best sung moment I’ve ever heard in this city. Yep I said it and I will fight you on that. Truly, as much as I’m complaining about this production, and as horrible as the audience was, I will absolutely be returning to watch Kelli perform. She’s a triumph.
The Palladium Theatre is a real POS. The toilets are near the entrance, on the other side of the huge lobby and bar area. And even though there are so many hallways and rooms and corners, everything feels squashed together. It’s a real claustrophobic place, outside the actual auditorium. The auditorium is at least airier, but it’s the wrong theatre from this show. I think it benefits from a thrust stage and this kind of shirty proscenium stage does nothing for this production.
Just expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed. Well you will be disappointed, in humanity, but you won’t be surprised. Aside from the panto reactions (oh I forgot, they also enjoyed clapping along to the music), we also had parents and children just flat-out talking, loudly, to each other the whole time. One 10-year-old ish girl in our row was having the worst time, and she kept asking her mother if they could leave. Instead of taking her out, which she should have done, the mother kept fishing around her bags to give her kid more and more food – all wrapped in the noisiest plastic you could imagine. Literally without even a moment’s pause, this happened for three straight hours. Aside from that kid, this was a different situation in that most of the trouble came from older people, when usually people our age are the worst. There was one older lady who was playing with paper the whole time, like balling it up, and it was actually so loud and she had no idea because she couldn’t really hear anyway. Omg there’s that skin rash.
Speaking of how much of a POS this theatre is, the security staff at stage door had NOOO idea what was happening. After everyone had lined up, the guards then brought out barriers and made everyone re-line up behind them. Why weren’t they out at the start of things, she asks not expecting anyone to ever have a good enough answer. Right away Ken came out, skipped the beginning of the line of course, where I was, signed a few programs, and left. Then the guards announced that that was it. They went through all that trouble just for Ken? Ughh I was so upset that no one else was coming out. The guards broke down the barriers and told everyone to go home. I waited a minute just to be sure, and literally one minute later the entire cast came out. What the actual fuck. These guards were SO DUMB. But I got to freak out Kelli again as I always do so that was fun/humiliating. Et cetera.