Get me to the Fifties on time

The American director Bartlett Sher has restaged two classical musicals with style and panache

Theatre
Regal absurdity and an uptight governess: Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara in “The King and I” (© Paul Kolnik)

Hello, young or ageless musical lovers wherever you are — this is the perfect time to revisit the repertoire of the Golden Age of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe. If, like me, you suffer friends and family who actively try to avoid the craft on the grounds that it is opera-for-losers, then more fool them. Something has shifted in the expectation of the staging of the best musicals on Broadway and in the West End in the last few years. Yes, there are still plenty of tourist-bait shows with poor story-lines, wavering high sopranos and thumpy percussion. But as Hamilton hit the creative and commercial heights, theatreland has dropped its sneer about the ability of musicals, old and new, to capture minds as well as hearts.

The American director Bartlett Sher can claim much credit for this switch as a director whose range takes him from directing J. T Roger’s Oslo, an enlightening if slightly ponderous play about the failed Middle East peace process, to chief doer-upper of some of the finest musical spectaculars.

The King and I at the London Palladium, which runs until September 29, exemplifies Sher’s intelligent blend of flair and nuance. He understands the fine-grained nature of social change and how to weave it into light-hearted dramatic narratives with an assurance vanishingly rare at a time when so many in theatres choose to shriek their messages in a high C. If there is a Sher recipe, it is a fine sanding of the dustier corners of condescension towards other cultures. Judicious twists of emphasis make plucky heroines into more overt feminists, without getting tiresome about it. The Sher-style has won him plaudits for South Pacific — and a dizzying rate of new commissions, with My Fair Lady playing to packed houses at the Vivian Beaumont theatre in New York’s Lincoln Center while The King and I holds court in London.

The 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner reminds us that English education is a valuable export. But more than half a century on, not even the vast curtainage of taffeta swished around by Kerr and Brynner at his most camp-charismatic could atone for Hollywood’s certainty that Asian foreigners were odd creatures, best enlightened by a bossy English governess. Sher rewrites with discernment, leaving the show-stoppers intact, but inserts moments of mischievous reflection from the Siamese chorus about Western perceptions: “They feel so sentimental/About the oriental.”

Sher’s version, which won four Tony awards in New York, delves deeper into the tale, making more of the king’s genuine anguish at the tensions of keeping a patrilineal society intact and his fierce desire to protect his borders from the incursions of French and British colonisers.

Kelli O’Hara won a Tony as Anna and moves easily from uptight bereaved English lady to one-woman resistance to the king’s quixotic demands. The Japanese actor Ken Watanabe gives Mongkut the full spectrum of grandeur, absurdity and a whimsical command of English — etcetera, etcetera. Naoko Mori shines as the head wife in charge of the dizzying concubinage of the court. It all looks very fine and luminous indeed on the Palladium’s grand stage with Christopher Gattelli’s lush choreography against backdrops of turquoise and ink-blue sets.

Doubtless audiences who enjoyed this will be treated to a transfer of the Henry-and-Eliza show before too long. Lerner and Loewe’s sweet-and-sour comedy turns, like its forebear, Shaw’s Pygmalion, on the competing drives of two characters (Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins) that need one another to fulfil their ambitious, but cannot live easily together. No wonder, really, as Henry is a curdled old bachelor and Eliza a spirited young thing with an appetite for romance rather than phonetics. The overhaul this time turns on making Higgins (Downton Abbey survivor Harry Hadden-Paton) young enough to be a credible mate. As affectionate as the Rex Harrison version was, it does strike modern audiences a bit too creepy that Eliza will be hauled back to Wimpole Street to a man who with a slipper-fixation who does not really seem to have changed much at all by the end of the play. Lauren Ambrose (fans of the brilliant TV drama Six Feet Under have met her as the witty-surly daughter in the family of undertakers) is a spry heroine, with oddly rigid Edwardian hair. Her cockney accent wanders a bit towards the Australian, which doesn’t matter too much in Manhattan but would need a fix if she makes the transatlantic transfer to London.

Diana Rigg plays Higgins mère with a keen blend of social hauteur and humanity. And my, does Sher love splashy moments of gorgeousness. Ascot opening day here is an Expressionist feast of high society in a regimented line, its po-faced rigour offset by Catherine Zuber’s costumes of ethereal lilacs and mauves. We all know what happens next — God blesses Eliza. “Get me to the church on time” throws the restraint of the film version overboard and gives Albert Doolittle (Norbert Leo Butz) a raucous stag-night of cross-dressed pubgoers and Lautrec-inspired dodgy ladies in corsets. No wonder he is reluctant to get to the church on time, if at all.