The sixth collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, The King and I marked something of a departure for Broadway's leading composer-lyricist team in dealing with non-American subject matter.
By extension it's quite ambitious, because it has to accommodate a kind of 'Otherness' in its score, lyrics and script in a way that wasn't usual for the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Oklahoma!, Carousel, State Fair and Allegro; and even South Pacific is inhabited by a number of American characters who speak and sing in an American diction.
The King and I, then, is even more story-driven than the others, and the book has a tension and seriousness which marginally exceed the earlier shows, not least because romance is not the primary subject at hand. Instead, it's all about an East-meets-West conflict, as a Victorian schoolmistress comes to Siam to attempt to bring education and decorum to the troubled court of King Mongkut.
Jeremy Sams' enchanting new production for Raymond Gubbay at the Royal Albert Hall is an ideal blend of spectacular imagery and intense relationships. Though it opened last weekend to slightly lukewarm reviews, I was completely entertained and engaged from start to finish.
For a start, the dialogue is almost entirely preserved and, in spite of the difficult acoustic, delivered crisply. One gets the feeling that the cast and director have explored it afresh without merely reproducing the vocal inflections made in the iconic Yul Brynner-Deborah Kerr film version.
Part of that's because of the casting here, which is very different. I wondered in advance whether Maria Friedman would be suited to the role of Anna Leonowens, since she's so well known for her appearances in contemporary musicals whereas this is the quintessential 1950s show. But in the event, she's absolutely perfect. For one thing, whereas Gertrude Lawrence had vocal difficulties in the original Broadway production and Deborah Kerr was dubbed in the film, Friedman's singing is excellent. The music lies well for her – largely in the middle range until she interpolates a soprano climax to her soliloquy, 'Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?'. This latter number is also a dramatic highlight – sadly cut from the movie version – in which Anna both vents her frustration for and express her admiration for the King. Her speaking accent is exceptionally crystalline, ideally evoking the pedantic streak in the English schoolmistress, but there's nothing frosty or stand-offish about her portrayal. And when she intervenes on behalf of Tuptim – the King's latest wife, a slave sent as a present from Burma who is in love with someone else and has tried to escape, invoking the King's wrath and a severe beating – it's not merely moral but the deepest human outrage at a potential act of barbarism.
Daniel Dae Kim's King, meanwhile, is a muscular, physical presence whose experience as a classical actor is always apparent in his sculpted articulation of the dialogue and ease on the stage. So even if the singing of 'A Puzzlement' is only just about passable, the overall portrayal is exceptionally strong. It's great to have someone who looks the part – masculine, proud – and yet avoids emulating Brynner's movie interpretation by having a warrior-like hairstyle instead of a bald head and by having clean-cut tunics throughout rather than a bare chest. We believe in his virility, and yet his articulacy bespeaks the progressive intellectual who wants to move his country forward in the world. Even the character's polygamy and manic fatherhood – surely the most problematic aspects of the story for an audience – seem strangely acceptable in this production, because the King seems a credible, rounded human. He's not a freak; he just happens to come from a different tradition.
Three solid singers take the secondary roles very comfortably. Jee Hyun Lim's sense of line, clear diction and rich tone made her perfect for Lady Thiang's showstopper 'Something Wonderful', while Yanle Zhong's even vocal production made Tuptim's 'My Lord and Master' and the two duets with Ethan Le Phong's supple-voiced Lun Tha into intense moments of heightened emotion. David Yip's slimy Kralahome also hit the mark, though neither Michael Simkins (Edward Ramsay) nor Stephen Scott (Captain Orton) quite made enough of their (admittedly small) roles. Mischa Goodman's poised and confident Louis slightly outdid Hugo Yamaguchi's Prince Chulalongkorn, the latter just not quite haughty enough for the part.
One real benefit of staging The King and I in the round at the Royal Albert Hall is that the overall 'pageant' feel of the production is well suited to the 'Small House of Uncle Thomas' divertissement in the second act. Susan Kikuchi's choreography is just the job, creating fluidity and mixing the ballet's rigid stylisation with emotive expressivity. While the arena means that Robert Jones' designs can't possibly depict the details of every scene with precision, the ornate floor, raised areas, wicker bridges, water tanks, gilt column and even a Chinese dragon combine to evoke precisely the flavour that's needed.
I thought some of the musical excisions were odd – we lose most of the overture, the introduction and end of 'I Whistle a Happy Tune', the reprise of 'A Puzzlement' and 'Western People Funny', the latter surely a crucial depiction of the Siamese point of view ('They think they civilise us whenever they advise us / To learn the same mistake that they are making too', runs the final verse). But otherwise, the musical rendition of the piece is hugely enjoyable, thanks to Gareth Valentine's musical direction and the playing of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra.
We're undergoing something of a Rodgers and Hammerstein renaissance at the moment, with South Pacific in New York, Carousel just about still running at the Savoy, The Sound of Music soon to embark on a UK tour, Oklahoma! at the Chichester Festival, Adam Cooper's dance show Shall We Dance? at Sadler's Wells in the summer and an exceptional new complete recording of Allegro recently out on Sony, affording us a great opportunity to see exactly why these two men dominated Broadway for almost two decades. But even against such vast competition, I don't think one could really come away from this King and I disappointed: it has all the heart, the head, the spectacle and the music that one could ask of the golden era of the Broadway musical, delivered with panache by a well-matched team.
The King and I runs at the Royal Albert Hall until 28 June 2009. For more information, see the show's website.
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