The King And I
Dominion Theatre, London, until March 2
While it’s disappointing we’re still being served up great old musicals that our parents and grandparents would have enjoyed – and come up with so few of our own – it’s a mistake to think they can’t sometimes talk to us on our own terms about our own times. The lyrics to You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific from 1949 – which could serve just as well as a commentary on the present populist politics of America, many European countries and our own – attest to that.
And just when I was starting to think The King and I – another Rodgers and Hammersmith show dating from the early 1950s – might be getting just a little bit past it, suddenly the King (Darren Lee) gets into what might now seem an edgy, even controversial, debate with Anna (Helen George) about whether it’s possible to exert power without the use of brutality.
That Anna wins the argument – by her actions as much as her words – makes the case once again for humanity and common decency that I think mattered every bit as much to Rodgers and Hammerstein in the immediate post-war years as the catchiness of their music and lyrics.
Judged simply as a musical, however, Bartlett Sher’s Lincoln Theatre production is efficient with Lee and George acquitting themselves well in the title roles and Caleb Lagayan rather wonderful as a crown prince who finds it rather difficult to be a crown prince.
The music – with orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett – is communicated with some panache, but it would of course take some doing not to make a success of old standards like Shall We Dance, Hello, Young Lovers and Getting to Know You.
It has great looks, too, thanks to Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes and it succeeds admirably in the by no means easy task of filling up the cavernous stage of the Dominion.