The King And I continues at Theatre du Chatelet, Paris, until 29 July.
The World Cup has not been the Chatelet’s best friend for the original-language Paris premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I but the stay-at-homes who missed this exquisite, no-expense-spared masterpiece to snore their way through a goalless French bore-draw made a serious misjudgement.
If attendances at this stunning 2,000-seater were a little depleted for an overdue 18-performance revival of the 1951 Broadway hit, you’d never have guessed it from the waving, cheering, ten-minute standing ovations that daily greeted this triumph, masterminded by Lee Blakeley, now a Chatelet regular after directing three Sondheim shows by the Seine, the latest, Into the Woods, only two months previously.
It has taken me a lifetime to see undoubtedly one of the most tuneful and beautiful-to-look-at musicals ever written but, having finally caught it, I was so entranced that I went two nights running.
That was partly to compare the two governesses, American mezzo Susan Graham and Anglo-Swiss soprano Christine Buffle, who shared the role of Anna, initially made famous on stage by the charismatic (but vocally underpowered) Gertrude Lawrence and on celluloid in 1956 by our own Deborah Kerr (with the high notes inevitably entrusted to Hollywood’s often uncredited dubber, Marni Nixon).
That movie won Yul Brynner an Oscar for reprising his stage King of Siam and it was a role that pursued him almost until his dying breath – it is claimed he played the king 4,625 times between 1951 and 1985, and on both sides of the Atlantic.
Here we had international French actor-singer Lambert Wilson – Fredrik in the Chatelet’s A Little Night Music five years ago but considerably better known for The Matrix sequels – doing those silly little steps in ‘Shall We Dance?’ and getting angry at being called a barbarian when a forward-looking monarch in so many ways although not perhaps in his attitude to women!
Unlike Brynner, there was no pretence about making Wilson look oriental, which took a bit of getting used to, but he soon won us over with his charm and the wit of Hammerstein’s lyrics.
As for the ladies, if Graham, making her musical theatre debut and getting her Home Counties vowels spot-on, hit the more thrilling notes, nothing made the spine tingle as much as Korean soprano Je Ni Kim who played Tuptim, the “gift” to the king from his oppo in Burma.
Her ‘I Have Dreamed’ and ‘We Kiss In A Shadow’ (sublime with ex-Royal College of Music baritone Damian Thantrey as her illicit lover Lun Tha) rightly received some of the loudest applause of the evening.
And Lisa Milne, as the most favoured of the king’s umpteen wives, made the very most of her big number ‘Something Wonderful’.
The ensemble pieces ‘March of the Siamese Children’ and the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet sequence, complete with puppets, were a a stately delight. Audience reaction told me I was heavily outvoted in thinking the ballet story-within-a-story went on a tad too long but the French, having patiently put up with long tracts of spoken English dialogue (helped only by surtitles above and to the side of the stage), clearly relished the classical elements of the show.
Sue Blane’s gorgeous, multi-coloured (and ostentatiously expensive) costumes were right off the planet, Jean-Marc Puissant’s elegant sliding-door sets pure creative genius and Peggy Hickey’s inventive choreography all complemented some of the finest songs ever written by that illustrious Broadway team.
And with Paul Holmes extracting some big-band brashness as well as lush strings from the full Pasdeloup Orchestra, it was another giant feather in the American musicals cap of Chatelet supremo Jean-Luc Choplin. If the plan was to make Broadway green with envy, he succeeded with knobs on as this show was surely even more extravagant than My Fair Lady last December.
It wasn’t quite perfection: the bulky ten-euro programme failed to include a song list, quite an oversight.
The Chatelet now looks forward to giving us the pre-Broadway world premiere of An American In Paris in November. And what other city could Gene Kelly possibly have picked for it?
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My Fair Lady – Theatre du Chatelet, Paris – Review