Seventy years before Maria left the abbey to look after the von Trapp children, British governess Anna Leonowens sailed to Bangkok to tutor the 82 princes and princesses of the Siamese court, far outranking the Austrian postulant for both class size and influence.


The musicals Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote around each of them are also on a different scale. The Sound of Music is a heartwarming tale much improved by the Robert Wise film, but the stage show is repetitive with many childish songs.  The King and I is an epic, directly addressing issues such as slavery, sexism and racism as Anna mentors the wives and children of the Siamese court with her take on ‘Western values’ as embodied by subjects of Queen Victoria’s Empire.


The balance of the show, and your reaction to it, pivots on casting. Yul Brynner was a forceful King, evenly-matched with Gertrude Lawrence in the Broadway original, but in the 1979 revival here at the Palladium, far outshone Virginia McKenna.   Now, the polarity is reversed.


Kelli O’Hara trails a cloud of Broadway success and redefines the role in a way that not only lays the ghost of previous incumbents, but also with vocal techniques and acting subtlety that outshine all our home grown talent.  There is something extraordinary about how she sings – her voice has an intense soprano power even in the softest lines at the beginning of some verses where her diction and English inflection are so impeccable, but when it climbs through a crescendo it does so seamlessly: there’s no gear change, no stagey belting, no break.  It is rare and enchanting to hear.


Ken Watanabe, sadly, is not in the same class. For sure there’s tangible chemistry with O’Hara and he has fine comic timing to debunk the pomposity of the King: but particularly in Act One he’s unpardonably indistinct, and his diction destroys the lyrics.   Only three of the cast were due from the Lincoln Center original production and a personal tragedy prevented Ruthie Ann Miles from re-delivering her Tony-award winning performance as head wife Lady Thiang.   Fortunately for the London audience, Naoko Mori renders, with impressive skill, what for many is the show’s most beautiful number, ‘Something Wonderful’.


Elsewhere the casting is a bit hit-and-miss: Takao Osawa makes an impressive UK debut as the Kralahome, and I’d be fascinated to go to a performance where as understudy he gets to play the King.  John Chew looks rather adult for Prince Chulalongkorn who was only 15 when he ascended the throne, Na-Young Jeon is an affecting Tuptim but as her lover Lun Tha, Dean John-Wilson seemed flat and stilted, as though he were still playing Aladdin.   The children are as enchanting as children always are in The King and I, and of course the infant princess steals the show.


Constant set changes and a glittery front cloth repeatedly drawn across the stage give Bartlett Sher’s production something of a pantomime feel, and in the Thai-styled ballet ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ although the choreography by Christoper Gattelli derived from Jerome Robbins’ is tremendous and the 40-plus cast show their mettle, at 16 minutes in a three hour show it’s a bit too much of a good thing.


The show has been very slightly updated, but resists reference to contemporary politics – not even when the bombastic King boasts he wants to build a Wall round Siam.  The hints at modernisation and emancipation remain, but detractors question whether the replacement of traditional Thai values with those of the moralising Empire-builders of Victoria’s reign would constitute an improvement.  Like Britain, though, Siam and later Thailand remains unconquered and uncolonised by any other nation.


None of which undermines the fact that The King and I is an immense piece of work, and to see a grand production in a great theatre, you could not do better than this at the Palladium.


And that indefinable sound you hear after the applause?  That’s 2,250 people falling in love with Kelli O’Hara.


until 29 September