The King and I – Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York

OHaraWatanabe

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara in The King and I at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York. Picture: Paul Kolnik

The King and I continues at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York until 5 July.

Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★

Spectacle and charm are served up in generous and equal amounts in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1951 classic The King and I.

The spectacle is evident from the moment the ship carrying Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis into Bangkok harbour moves out of a cloud of steam and fog and over the orchestra pit. The charm blooms shortly after when Anna and Louis join in singing ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune‘ to dispel the fears they have about their new life in Siam.

Even with all the import the production carries with its cast of 51 plus its 29-piece orchestra, you’ll feel an immediate and intimate connection with the fortunes of this woman and her son. And it continues to build as she goes toe to toe with Siam’s volatile and well-meaning ruler in her role as teacher to his horde of wives and children.

Kelli O’Hara, one of Broadway’s hardest working and most winning divas, imbues Anna with a stately but womanly presence that can be sometimes spiky as well, and her plush soprano brings crystal-like clarity to Rodgers’ melodies and Hammerstein’s lyrics.

She is matched perfectly by the Japanese film and stage star Ken Watanabe, making an impressive American stage debut as the Siamese King. His bursts of temper are as fierce as his moments of playfulness and curiosity are infectious. He is a man locked into tradition even as he attempts to modernise his country.

Under his unpredictable demeanour, a man of deep feeling and essential goodwill is evident, along with the role’s requisite touch of sexiness. (Can you discuss any production of The King and I without some remembrance of Yul Brynner?) It’s a sexiness that simmers provocatively but not quite to the boiling point in the climactic ‘Shall We Dance’.

The production is a follow-up to Lincoln Center’s highly successful 2008 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific which ran for nearly 1,000 performances. Like The King and I, it starred Kelli O‘Hara and was directed by Bartlett Sher.

The striving of the Lincoln Center’s powers-that-be to come up with a similar hit is palatable in this mounting of The King and I. And it is indeed a resplendent revival, totally respecting the original. It uses the 1951 orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett and the dance and incidental music of Trude Rittman. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, which takes over the stage in the iconic Act II ‘Small House of Uncle Thomas’ ballet is based on Jerome Robbins’ innovative work.

Yet there is hardly a whiff of a museum piece. Under Sher’s confident direction, the playing brings urgency to both the drama and contemporary resonances in Hammerstein’s script. Foremost is the role of women in a fundamentalist society. It bubbles over in the clashes between Anna and the King, and moves into high drama with Tuptim, the young woman who has been added to the King’s collection of wives as a gift from Burma, but whose love for another man leads to tragedy.

Sher receives magnificent assistance in Michael Yeargan’s sets, surrounding the scenes of more expansive action with an airy elegance that uses the vastness of the Vivian Beaumont stage to superb effect. For passages of intimacy, the scenery along with Donald Holder’s lighting closes in artfully to provide focus. Catherine Zuber’s costumers add to the eye-filling panorama.

Furthermore, O’Hara and Watanabe are surrounded by a seemingly hand-picked company. Among the standouts are Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang, the King’s devoted First Wife, and Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora as Tuptim and her lover.

Miles’ rendition of ‘Something Wonderful’ is just that, and Park and Ricamora create beautifully soaring duets with ‘We Kiss in a Shadow‘ and ‘I Have Dreamed’.

Adding to the charm quotient are Jake Lucas as Anna’s son and Edward Baker-Duly as the English ambassador. Jon Viktor Corpuz as the King’s first born, Prince Chulalongkorn, and Paul Nakauchi as the King’s prime minister bring both gravity and humanity to their respective roles.

With all its trappings, The King and I is like a journey to an exotic land but it’s a journey accompanied by a lot of comfortably familiar and welcome tunes and characters.

Ron Cohen       

Readers may also be interested in:

Finding Neverland – Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York – Review

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