To really enjoy The King and I it is probably best to put the politics to one side and instead marvel at Rodgers & Hammerstein’s immortal music and lyrics. In the 1860s, when the musical is set, the idea was that the forward-looking West would educate the East in the ways of the civilised world. This now sounds as patronising as it really is. It was Gertrude Lawrence’s agent who took the story of English governess Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam and how the one looked after the other’s children, to the attention of composer and lyricist, although Cole Porter and Noël Coward had been approached first, who both turned it down. Rodgers and Hammerstein were uneasy when faced with adapting Margaret Landon’s book, but warmed to it when they saw the film about the same subject with Rex Harrison.
The original 1951 production cast a mere two Asian performers, which producers could not get away with today; most of the cast of Bartlett Shaw’s Lincoln Center production are of Asian origin. It starred Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs Anna, who died during the initial run, and the incredible Yul Brynner as the King who made the part his own and continued playing it in many revivals almost until his death.
The show opens with a stunning coup de theatre, as the ship bringing Mrs Anna and her son Louis to the harbour in Bangkok rears up and goes so far that out you think it is going to end up in the audience. Anna has come to tutor the children of the King of Siam. There ensues a battle of prejudices on both sides, with the level-headed governess having to understand this tyrannical ruler who keeps slaves and puts the fear of God into all his subjects including his extended family of wives, concubines and children.
The story develops as the two leading characters get to know and even to like each other. It takes a while for the members of the King’s court to become accustomed to the odd clothes that Mrs Anna gives them to wear, but they soon take the interloper to their hearts and are sorry when she announces that she is leaving.
Their journey detailing the experiences of two alien nations becoming used to their different ways takes us through marvellous songs. In Kelli O’Hara the production has arguably the best casting it has ever had (Lawrence was no great singer), and she sings with utter clarity and warmth, bringing new-found pleasure to ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’, ‘Hello, Young Lovers’, ‘Getting to Know You’ and ‘Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?’
Na-Young Jeon as Tuptim gives a beautiful version of ‘My Lord and Master’ and two fine duets with Dean John-Wilson as Lun Tha, the two illicit lovers in ‘We Kiss in a Shadow’ and ‘I Have Dreamed’. Naoko Mori excels in her singing of ‘Something Wonderful’ to Rodgers’s surging music. The King has little in the way of songs apart from his wondering about the woman from England in ‘A Puzzlement’. Ken Watanabe fits Brynner’s shoes so well and his performance as the brutal King is both repellent and charismatic.
Of course, what we are all waiting for is the duet between Anna and the King, ‘Shall We Dance?’. This is a great scene-stealer as the pair waltz around with Anna’s flouncy dress floating behind her and the King holding on to his partner with unalloyed pleasure.
Sher’s production never lets up and he and his choreographer have even managed to inject new life into Jerome Robbins’s choreography for the play within a play when the children enact a version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This can be an interlude that outstays its welcome but here with its brilliant costumes, gorgeous colours and stunning choreography, it is welcome. All this is enlivened by the orchestra under Stephen Ridley, bringing a new excitement to Rodgers’s imperishable score.