Few things in the theatre give more pleasure than the discovery of a brilliant new talent – be it an actor, director or playwright. This was very much in evidence at the opening night of The King and I when Kelli O’Hara, making a sensational West End debut as Anna Leonowens, had the enthusiastic audience on its feet with their ecstatic whoops of “brava!” filling the vast Palladium auditorium.
O’Hara, of course, is not exactly a newcomer. Broadway first saw her Tony winning Anna Leonowens, directed by Bartlett Sher, at Lincoln Centre three years ago. Before that she captivated audiences as Babe in The Pajama Game and as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. Few in Britain, however, have even heard of her. But not anymore. The King and I will establish her as one of the best musical divas on both sides of the Atlantic. She is the heart and the soul of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s still politically controversial 1951 hit and delivers a nuanced performance of such natural grace, authority and charm – with a vocal prowess to match – that you cannot take your eyes off her. Her singing of "Hello Young Lovers" is as good as it gets.
Kelli’s leading man, also making his West End debut, as the serially petulant King of Siam, is Japanese actor Ken Watanabe. Though he has the stature and the heft the role demands, as well as a physically imposing presence in the best Yul Brynner mould, his command of English remains tenuous, to say the least. When I first saw him at Lincoln Centre in 2015, much of his dialogue was incomprehensible, a particular casualty being his song "A Puzzlement" – which indeed it was. I could barely decipher a word of it. It’s marginally better than it was three years ago, but to get the real measure of its witty lyric, you have to wait until it is reprised by Anna’s young son Louis and the king’s son Prince Chulalongkorn.
Sher’s sensitive direction, with its humorous grace notes and telling little touches, remains as seamlessly inventive and refreshingly uncluttered as it was at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in New York, with the big highlight being the extraordinary segue towards the end of the show, from the romantic build up to "Shall We Dance" (one of the great, spine-tingling moments in the history of the musical) to the dramatic and mood-darkening discovery of Tuptim’s (Na-Young Jeon) intended elopement with Lun Tha (Dean John-Wilson), which precipitates the death of the king.
Other highlights are "The March of the Siamese Children," which never fails to elicit oohs and aaahs from the audience, "Getting to Know You" and of course the 16-minute ballet set-piece, "The Little House of Uncle Thomas," choreographed by Christopher Gattelli but unashamedly based on the original staging by Jerome Robbins.
Just as they had done with their Pulitzer Prize-winning South Pacific two years earlier, Rodgers and Hammerstein, in adapting Margaret Landon’s memoir Anna and the King of Siam, were attracted to themes not usually associated with musical comedy – most certainly not in 1951. In South Pacific it was miscegenation, and in The King and I it is tradition versus modernism as the King - as much a traditionalist as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof a decade later – reluctantly accepts that his country is under siege from British and French colonialism and hires an English schoolteacher to educate his many children.
Without losing any of its sparkle, there is a gravitas about the production that is reflected in its design by Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber’s costumes. Apart from its flashy and visually striking opening scene set on the prow of the ship that is bringing Anna Leonowins to Bangkok, the rest of the action takes place in a palace dominated by a backdrop of a single wall with simple moving columns, swishing curtains and the occasional crystal chandelier taking the place of the elaborate and ornate sets usually associated with exotic Asian royalty.
Though O’Hara is unquestionably the star of this crowd-pleasing classic, Sher has, in the main, assembled a really excellent, largely Asian supporting cast, most notably Naoko Mori as Lady Thiang, and Jeon as the ill-fated Tuptim.
Interestingly, The King and I has yet to be performed in Bangkok because of what is still perceived as patronising in the way it imposes Victorian values on the country’s native culture, religion and beliefs. Politically correct or not, it remains a skillfully crafted old-school Broadway musical that you walk out of whistling a happy tune (or six).