Last week, Team Coco got a special seat to see the new Tony Award-winning production of The King & I at the London Palladium and enjoyed an evening of exotic costumes, fantastic singing, and good theatre ol’ spectacle — to the tune of “Shall We Dance” of course.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 67 year old musical gets a 2018 makeover care of Bartlett Sher, followed by a successful run of the production at the Lincoln Center. This rendition is led by Ken Watanabe, (from Inception and The Last Samurai fame), who has the inherent regality to play the King of Siam. He is accompanied by Kelli O’Hara, who actually won a Tony Award for her stellar performance as straight laced Victorian era governess, Anna Leonowens.
With countless renditions over the years, from the iconic Yul Brunner version to the rather odd Lou Diamond Phillips one in the mid nineties; one of the main controversies surrounding the King & I has always been how it tackles its morally ambiguous storyline. Beyond the charming romance between Anna and the King, Bartlett Sher’s version also sheds a light on the stark differences between Eastern and Western cultures, as well as the absurdity of The White Man’s burden to civilise the East. A less sophisticated, and more revisionist, production would have framed the issue as Anna “taming” the King’s barbaric ways — to appease to British sentimentalities in order to prevent colonisation, but this production tackles the issue with a nuance that would appease even the most politically correct audience. Today, representation is undeniably important — and as a Chinese-Filipino myself, I was very impressed with how Bartlett Sher cast his ensemble. (No white-washing here at all people!) After “Getting to Know’” (pardon the musical pun) The King & I, I can say that it deftly balances the conflicts between tradition and modernity, spiritualism and science, and finally, love and responsibility.
Overall, Kelli O’Hara, really shone as the virtuous Anna. Naoko Mori as King Mongkut’s first wife, and Na-Young Jeon as Tuptim are also worth mentioning for their fantastic performances. Each one of the women had plenty of chances to shine and each one really took the stage and captivated the audience from the front row all the way to the back. In 1860s Siam, women were seen as mere objects, and Ken Watanabe effectively hammers down King Mongkut’s imperial misogyny with a petulant theatricality throughout the production. So to see these women really have their shining moments on one of London’s biggest West End stages – was a poignant symbolic victory for strong and independent women like Anna Leonowens; and all the other Anna’s who live beyond the stage.