London gets to know ‘King’

Revival transfer tries to win over West End

Those were the days. In 1951, “The King and I” weighed in as the most expensive show in Broadway history, costing $360,000. The story is basically a three-hander — Anna, the King and Tuptim — but the original cast ran to 61, a total almost matched by Raymond Gubbay‘s recent 15-performance London revival at the 4,500-seat Royal Albert Hall.

Smartly staged by Jeremy Sams in the great Victorian venue’s cavernous, circular arena, the production featured a cast of 55 headed by Daniel Dae Kim, better known as Jin Kwon on ABC’s “Lost,” and Maria Friedman.

Famously written as a star vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, who was many things, few of which had anything to do with singing, the show nonetheless features one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s richest scores. Hearing a voice as strong as Friedman’s sing it accompanied by the lush playing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra was a rare treat.

The entire event was almost upstaged by the Dress: Robert Jones’ shimmering gold and crimson confection was virtually cantilevered from Friedman’s waist like a giant Pavlova — we’re talking dessert, not the dancer. But, in fact, Jones’ set, Andrew Bridge‘s lighting and Bobby Aitken‘s sound design mostly found ways to control this sumptuous but intractable space.

Not that their attempt escapes being excoriated by Gerard Alessandrini in his new London edition of “Forbidden Broadway” playing to exuberant houses at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Unseen in London in a decade, the Rialto sketch show is a rejig of its most recent Gotham incarnation plus greatest hits from the back catalog — there’s a warm welcome for Phillip George‘s sublimely staged spoof of “Les Miz” and the vicious “Defying Subtlety” spin on Idina Menzel‘s turn in “Wicked.”

But alongside songwriting assaults on Broadway’s hits, several of which are either still running in London or actually began life in the West End, the expert cast of four — Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey and Steven Kynman, plus pianist Joel Fram — offer up a handful of London-specific items.

Designer William Dudley‘s obsession with video-projection sets — having inadvertently made audiences feel seasick in “The Woman in White,” the technique was only marginally more effective in the recent, flaccid “Carousel” — is deliciously ridiculed in “Projections.” But some of the biggest laughs were reserved for Alessandrini’s expert skewering of Trevor Nunn‘s overlong, overplayed, undercast and underlit “A Little Night Music,” a production created by … the Menier Chocolate Factory.

In fact, Nunn’s revival transfer (which also is in the works for a Broadway move later this year) has not been the hoped-for hit in the West End. Poor bookings have meant that a recent six-week extension through September has been nixed. The show will now close July 25, leaving the attractively located 700-seat Garrick Theater dark. Might “Forbidden Broadway” move in?

A cast of four plus piano is clearly a more comfortable financial proposition than the more amply upholstered requirements of Stephen Sondheim‘s tuner for producer David Babani. However, a decade ago, Babani brandished a clutch of good reviews and took “Forbidden Broadway” from the minuscule Jermyn Street Theater into the West End’s Noel Coward Theater (then called the Albery). It tanked. That’s likely to give him pause.

In fact, a recent heat wave (few West End theaters are effectively air-conditioned) means tickets are being aggressively discounted. The few shows managing to stay afloat with any ease are those that either have an unassailable brand — the inbuilt reality-TV audience for Cameron Mackintosh‘s “Oliver!” — or are uniquely theatrical, like, say, the National Theater’s smash-hit transfer of “War Horse” or Derren Brown‘s astonishing “Enigma.”

The latter is no more and no less than a magic act. But Brown’s almost preposterously entertaining combination of illusion, mind reading, mind games, hypnosis and quick-fire standup is a jaw-dropping display of how to glue an audience to a virtuoso performer. If that’s not theater, what is?

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