David Vass is swept away with the surprisingly moving new production of The King and I

The King and I has long been the “problem” Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and there is certainly a hint of condescension in a story about an English governess showing the King of Siam the error of his feudal ways. Bartlett Sher’s production tackles this issue head on, presenting a handsomely staged but uncompromising version that draws out subtleties from the text that for too long have gone unnoticed.

Here, the unconsummated romance between the two leads takes second place to a battle within the soul of the king as he struggles to make sense of his place – and his country’s place – in the modern world. While Kelli O’Hara’s beautiful soprano voice is showcased from the outset with the charming ‘Getting to Know You’, it is Ken Watanabe’s impulsive autocrat that drives the narrative on.

The ballet based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still a challenge to sit through, albeit fabulous to look at, but hang on in there, the best is yet to come as the drama takes a surprisingly stark turn that will have you questioning everything you thought you knew about post-war musicals. And, of course, there is the finest, heart-breaking, set piece of the whole show – Shall we Dance’?

By David Vass