June 18, 2014 2:48 pm

The King and I, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris – review

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Lee Blakeley’s production looks splendid and the music is toe-tappingly good
Susan Graham and Lambert Wilson in 'The King and I'©Marie-Noelle Robert

Susan Graham and Lambert Wilson in 'The King and I'

Welcome to Broadway-en-Seine. Jean-Luc Choplin’s transformation of the Châtelet into a venue for total entertainment musicals has now reached cruising speed. There is still audible gnashing of teeth from opera fans nostalgic for the stewardship of Jean-Pierre Brossmann, but there is no denying the quality of execution in Choplin’s musicals.

This new staging of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is a prime example. It is arguably Lee Blakeley’s best production yet for the theatre, on a par at any rate with his A Little Night Music.

The show looks splendid, thanks to Jean-Marc Puissant’s elegant and practical sliding panels. Sue Blane’s gorgeous costumes are multicoloured, intricately spangled and presumably hideously expensive. Peggy Hickey’s inventive choreography turns the long Act Two ballet, a case of brazen padding that normally grates, into a pièce de résistance complete with puppets.

Blakeley moves the cast around with unforced skill. The kids are great too, wittily sporting mortar boards during their geography lesson, all impishly charming but each in an individual way.

My only complaint (yet again) is the miking; happily the opera singers in the cast avoid saturation, but this is a dialogue-heavy piece and it all comes from the same space whether the character is up or down stage, left or right. It’s as if 50 per cent of the speaker’s emotions have been cut out. Even this talented cast cannot prevent shades of monotony from creeping in.

US mezzo Susan Graham triumphs in her first venture into musical, triggering warm applause as soon as she appears on stage like some guest star on a TV show. She is not quite Deborah Kerr in accent – more an American matron who can do most of the imperious Home County vowels but still prefers making apple pie – yet she pulls off a truly commanding performance.

Lambert Wilson’s King, white-haired and not Yul Brynner bald, struggles initially to ward off the impression of an amiable pensioner, but dispatches the songs with panache and clipped Rex Harrison inflections. Lisa Milne’s Lady Thiang has the best tune and sings it beautifully.

James Homes, conducting a full symphony orchestra, steers a sensitive course between big-band brashness and delicately cushioned accompaniment. It is all toe-tappingly good, but not for some prim souls flitting around the bar moaning about how much better Sondheim is. France’s thinking classes find good tunes suspect – and that applies even to Tchaikovsky.


chatelet-theatre.com

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