Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai) inherits the role in this revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Broadway blockbuster that has already won four Tonys including Best Leading Actress In A Musical for Kelli O’Hara in the role of Anna.
It takes 20 seconds to see why. O’Hara owns the role from the moment she and her young son arrive on a paddle steamer in Siam so Anna can take up the role of governess and teacher to the King’s children.
He has a lot of children: 67 at the start of the play, 77 by the end. No wonder he looks exhausted in the final scene.
During the course of her years in Siam, Anna not only teaches a privileged selection of the children about the Western world and instils in them Victorian values but she teaches the King to become a more liberal ruler, as well as teaching him the joys of the waltz.
O’Hara conveys the spirited stoicism of the Victorian gentlewoman with utter conviction. Her singing is superb and semi-operatic but free enough to play with the tempo of Hello Young Lovers like Julie Andrews possessed by Frank Sinatra.
Watanabe may not be the world’s greatest singer, over-performing It’s A Puzzlement, and his accent is so strong that he is not always intelligible.
But his theatrical presence, timing and the depth he brings to the role are ample compensations. The moment in the Shall We Dance sequence when he insists on holding Anna in the British fashion as opposed to at arm’s length is absolutely electrifying.
There is much to praise in Bartlett Sher’s production. The children, including one of the tiniest performers I have ever seen on stage, are wonderful and individually well-defined.
The ballet-within-the-musical, The Small House Of Uncle Thomas, is a model of East/West choreography by Jerome Robbins and beautifully revised by Christopher Gattelli. Naoko Mori provides a highlight as Lady Thiang with Something Wonderful and Na-Young Jeon is heartbreaking as the tragic concubine Tuptim.
Some misguided commentators have complained about racial stereotyping in The King And I but this is a liberal musical about the difficulties and benefits of two opposing cultures finding common ground and learning from each other. And with numbers including I Whistle A Happy Tune and Getting To Know You, as well as the hysterically funny Western People Funny, it has more singalong songs than almost any other musical I can think of.
Until September 29. Tickets: 020 7087 7757
GIFFORDS CIRCUS 4/5, Chiswick House & Gardens (UK tour)
WHEN Jennifer Saunders, Ade Edmondson, Anneka Rice, Vivienne Westwood and Diana Quick all show up for a circus, there must be more to it than clowns.
Tweedy The Clown might be the fulcrum on which the show revolves but he also performs juggling tricks, aerial stunts and plays the bagpipes. Better still he doesn’t wear scary “It” clown make-up.
A scarlet tuft of hair is his one concession to clown-like presentation. Modelled on an Edwardian-style village green circus, Giffords started life in 2000.
The retro-nostalgia trip is perfect in every detail.
The current show, My Beautiful Circus, hovers around the 1920s/1930s, with a great band playing non-stop Gershwin, Cole Porter and Arthur Freed songs fronted by a singer in a satin dress and a feathered headband.
Acts include Nell Gifford’s performing Shetland ponies, Diana’s Dancing Dachshunds, an aristocratic grey horse and a talking turkey.
There is also a strongman with an afro the size of Wales. Breathtaking balancing acts, high-flying teeterboard acrobats and elegant aerialists complete the picture.
The real secret to Giffords is that the performers, on four legs and two, seem to be having as much fun as the audience.
The show is family-friendly with a light coating of mischief (Tweedy loses his trousers and the singer loses her dress in a mutual comic strip), making it harmless, charming and heaps of fun.
Until July 9 (touring until September 30). Tickets: 01242 691181