You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The King and I

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.

Anna Leonowens - Elaine Paige
The King of Siam - Jason Scott Lee
Tuptim - Aura Deva
Lun Tha - Sean Ghazi
The Kralahome - Ho Yi
Lady Thiang - Taewon Yi Kim
The Interpreter - Miguel Diaz

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.

The King and I

London Palladium, London; 2,275 seats; $37.50 ($ 60) top

Production: A SEL and GFO, David Ian for Magnum Prods. / Qdos Entertainment and Dodger Theatricals presentation, in association with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, ofa musical in two acts based upon the novel "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon, with music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Choreography by Jerome Robbins supervised by Susan Kikuchi; musical staging, Lar Lubovitch. Musical supervision and direction, John Owen Edwards.

Creative: Sets, Brian Thomson; costumes, Roger Kirk; lighting, Nigel Levings; sound, Paul Groothuis; orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett; additional orchestrations, Bruce Coughlin. Opened, reviewed May 3, 2000. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Cast: Anna Leonowens - Elaine Paige
The King of Siam - Jason Scott Lee
Tuptim - Aura Deva
Lun Tha - Sean Ghazi
The Kralahome - Ho Yi
Lady Thiang - Taewon Yi Kim
The Interpreter - Miguel Diaz
With: Richard Avery, Christopher Hawkins, Benjamin Ibbott, Alexander Deng, Joseph Tadiar, Robin Kermode, Jeana Leah Cachero, Charlotte Nyguen, Irene Alano, Khan Bonfils, Karen Cadogan, Jo Jo de la Cerna, Steven Eng, Su-Man Hsu, Yukiko Kashiki, Na-Ye Kim, David Lee, Mei-Chun Lin, Benjamin Loh, Ming Liu, Kaori Murakami, Azumi Ono, Oliver Pang, Malenia May Po, Therese Rademark, Stephanie Reese, Gina Respall, Ayako Shimizu, Samart Santhaveesuk, Gina Tse, Unku.

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content