It’s not only because “The King and I” is about a royal family in need of civilizing that the Tony-feted Broadway production seems ripe for revival in England, not to mention for London’s cavernous Palladium, where Christopher Renshaw’s staging will no doubt run for years, if a pre-opening advance of some $ 11 million is any guide. This is Rodgers and Hammerstein writ large — and, in Brian Thomson’s set, rather overwhelmingly red — and there’s no doubt that the production works on the level of epic pantomime, the genre suggested by the sparkling elephants’ eyes that greet theatergoers before the show has even begun. (Also visible: an enormous tusk or two with a gilt-edged schnozz, evoking what one might call Grauman’s Siam Theater.)
Scenic splendors — however kitschy — aside, does this “King and I” dance? It certainly does during “Shall We Dance,” when Jason Scott Lee’s piquantly fierce King of Siam finally places his arm around the waist of the governess Anna (Elaine Paige) in what seems an almost impossibly erotic impulse. By that point, however, there may be some in the audience privately wishing to polka their own way out of the theater. The fact is, this is a “King and I” high on production values — Roger Kirk’s astounding parade of costumes steals the show at every turn, preeminently during “March of the Siamese Children”— and low not just on pace but on what Frank Loesser, in a musical (“Guys and Dolls”) more or less contemporaneous with “The King and I,” referred to simply as chemistry. You know there’s something not entirely right in Siam when the greatest applause is reserved for Lady Thiang (Broadway holdover Taewon Yi Kim, in rapturous voice), whose “Something Wonderful” is that and more.
The Palladium has always depended on star casting, so it made sense to hire a headliner like Paige, who has emerged more or less by default as Britain’s leading lady of the musical stage, as we are forever being told. And for all the self-evident implausibilities of this onetime Eva Peron and Norma Desmond as Mrs. Anna — to start with, she and co-star Lee look far enough apart in age that she could be tutoring him, not just his countless (and cute-as-buttons) offspring — there’s hardly a more splendid sound to be heard on a West End stage than Paige’s second-act reprise of “Hello, Young Lovers”: truthful, unshowy, evocative of the true landscape of the show — the human heart — traversed by virtually every R&H collaboration. Paige’s famed voice sounds freer here than it has in the past, as if the hard edge required for the Lloyd Webber belters had been shed in favor of the defining humanity of the classic American musical, however patronizing this show’s book may appear in these PC days. (At times, the subtext of “The King and I” could be summed up as “Eastern people funny,” even if “Western People Funny” is the song from the glorious score that nowadays usually gets cut.)
Elsewhere, one feels Paige’s own unease in the part, as if she were keen to signal to her fans that she’s capable of more than the role really allows. (For the record, Paige is London’s sixth Mrs. Anna and the second at this address, following Virginia McKenna, opposite Yul Brynner, in 1979.) How else to explain her vocal curlicue on the word “breezy” during “Getting to Know You,” or the determined belt with which she concludes “Hello, Young Lovers” the first time around? Paige’s tendencies toward mugging, brought to the boil during “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” don’t mesh with Anna’s essential graciousness, though this performance is considerably more playful — and, I would guess, audience-pleasing — than Donna Murphy’s rather pained occupancy of the same part in New York in 1996. (When Murphy spoke of Anna having “needed disciplining ,” she seemed to be tilting the show in the masochistic direction of, say, “Carousel.”)
If Paige seems unsure where to aim the performance (she’s not helped by voluminous hoop skirts that make the actress look like Little Bo-Peep), musical newcomer Lee stakes a fresh claim to the male lead, a perf distinct not just from Brynner but from the cheeky and youthful Lou Diamond Phillips in New York four years ago. Lee, too, hardly looks old enough (who would?) to have sired 67 children, but his King possesses a stern mien well beyond his years — as well as a fast-talking, comic imperiousness that commands affection and respect. And if he can’t sing — vocally, “A Puzzlement” certainly is that — the man can move: Lee’s “Shall We Dance” is amazingly fleet-of-foot.
Yi Kim’s wondrous Lady Thiang aside, the supporting honors must go to the resplendently attired array of tiny tots, one of whom is so small that she has to tug at Lee’s feet (!) to get noticed. (Separately, there’s something rather surreal about watching a British audience applaud Siamese children applauding England for being “even smaller than Siam.”) Playing the secondary lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, Aura Deva and Sean Ghazi communicate the urgency missing elsewhere, although not from a deathbed scene that — however badly plotted (what does Hammerstein’s king die of?) — finds Lee at his most regal. “Was he as good a king as he might have been?” asks Anna’s young son, Louis, and one could inquire the same of a fundamentally conventional “King” that wants to be big and broad when what really matters — as recent reclamations of R and H’s “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” have shown — is to be brave.