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The King and I

The King and I Comes To The West End After an acclaimed 16-month run on Broadway, the multi-Tony Award-winning production The King & I will be coming to London next month.

The King and I is a beautiful musical telling the tale of an unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens - a British schoolteacher who the King hires to tutor his wives and children.

The musical is accompanied by an epic, stirring score, visually stunning costume and set design, and fresh from sell-out success in the US, The King & I is set to be London’s theatrical event of the year.

The spectacle is directed by Bartlett Sher, has a whole host of Tony Awards to its name, and has received rave reviews on Broadway: ‘I doubt I’ll see a better production in my lifetime’ said the Wall Street Journal, ‘Breathtaking. Exquisite. Remarkable’ said the New York Times.

The story is one of the big five from composer Richards Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. There hasn’t been a full London production since 2000, which is why The King and I may be more familiar to younger musical fans for tune ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’, as well as ‘Getting to Know You’ and ‘Shall We Dance?’. Most will remember the story mostly for the 1956 film version, but The King & I really shines on stage.

The London Palladium staging boasts lead actors with enough onstage charisma to blast memories of other performances out of your mind. The production stars three of the original cast members who acted in New York: Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe and Ruthie Ann Miles, who will continue to play their roles of Anna Leonowens, The King of Siam, and Lady Thaing.

New to the cast is Japanese actress Naoko Mori who audiences will recognize from Avenue Q and a TV stint on Absolutely Fabulous. Japanese television star Takao Osawa will also join the cast, as well as Dean John-Wilson, who starred in the title role of Disney’s West End production of Aladdin, and Na-Young Jeon among other names.

Directing the play will be the Tony Award-winning American director Barlett Sher, hot on the heels of his work on Lincoln Center Theatre’s ‘My Fair Lady’ back in March.

It was Gertrude Lawrence, the pre-war British star then entering her fifties and much in need of a hit, who first brought the idea to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Deborah Kerr starred in the film with her singing voice dubbed. English Anna Leonowens have included Virginia McKenna, Liz Robertson, Hayley Mills, Elaine Paige and Maria Friedman. For his Broadway production, Sher cast Kelli O’Hara, whom he directed in the multi Tony award-winning production of South Pacific in the same theatre in 2008.

“She has the absolutely best legit voice on Broadway,” Sher says. “The purity of that sound, the control and technique of her singing is untouchable.” You’d never guess it to hear her sing it, but O’Hara doesn’t find the role of Anna an entirely snug fit. “I’m a soprano,” she says. “This is lower than my comfort zone. But I want to play the role so I make myself do it. She to me is a morally sound person and that is an interesting thing to play because you feel like what you’re doing is grounded and worthy.”

The King and I has a long and intriguing pre-history. The real Anna Leonowens kept a diary of her time teaching the children of the King of Siam in the 1860s. It was published in 1870 and remains a fascinating snapshot of a hidden world emerging into the light. Three quarters of a century later, the novelist Margaret Landon fell on the journal as a rich source for a heavily fictionalised reimagination of her story entitled Anna and the King of Siam. That was instantly snapped up by Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck and filmed with Rex Harrison.

There is a romantic subplot in The King and I, but what is richly unusual about it is that the main players act out a subtler and more deeply resonant story about east and west, men and women, tradition and modernity. It’s beautifully expressed in “Shall We Dance?” the climactic duet between Anna and the King which is most memorable as the ecstatic meeting of minds, hearts and, most of all, feet. And that will always be timeless.

The King & I will be opening from 21 June, with matinee performances across a variety of dates from 30th August – 27th September.

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Kelli O'Hara credit Paul Kolnik credit Paul Kolnik