Critic's Notebook: Broadway's 'The King and I' Gets New Leads

Courtesy of Paul Kolnik
Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim in 'The King and I'

Daniel Dae Kim of 'Lost' and 'Hawaii Five-O' makes his Broadway debut opposite Marin Mazzie, creating fresh sparks in Lincoln Center Theater's Tony-winning revival.

In many productions of The King and I, the King of Siam has the upper hand over the British schoolteacher Anna, if only by dint of age and authority. But the roles are now happily being reversed in the Tony Award-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic 1951 musical, thanks to the presence of two new leads. Playing the titular roles, Daniel Dae Kim and Marin Mazzie bring fresh sparks to the superbly realized production.

Mazzie is well known to Broadway theatergoers, having snagged Tony nominations for Kiss Me, Kate, Ragtime and Passion during her illustrious career. She's also had a recent personal triumph, overcoming a devastating cancer diagnosis. Kim is making his Broadway debut, although he's certain to be a box-office draw for summertime tourists thanks to his starring roles on such television series as Lost and Hawaii Five-O.

The revival's original leads, Kelli O' Hara and Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe, were terrific, with O'Hara winning a best actress Tony and Watanabe seducing audiences with his magnetic charisma. But as good as they were, there were things to quibble about. O'Hara seemed a little too much the girlish ingenue to be fully convincing as the steel-willed, widowed Anna who demands that the King honor his promise of giving her a house. And Watanabe's command of English was a bit shaky, which, while in keeping with the character's own linguistic challenges, resulted in a slightly tentative performance.

There are no such problems now. Mazzie is superb in the role, delivering such gorgeous songs as "Hello, Young Lovers" and "Getting to Know You" with a voice as lush as the uncommonly large Broadway orchestra backing it. And she's thoroughly commanding in the dramatic portions, making Anna's angry exchanges with the King truly suspenseful. She's also eight years older than her co-star, and while the age difference pales in comparison to Gertrude Lawrence's being more than two decades older than Yul Brynner in the original production, it lends an intriguing dynamic to their interactions.

Kim doesn't have much of a voice, but the same was true of many of his predecessors, including Brynner, the actor who owned the role for decades. And anyway, the King doesn't do that much singing, with only one solo number, "A Puzzlement," as well as a duet with Anna ("Song of the King") and a brief portion of "Shall We Dance?" The actor does just fine with those numbers, and he displays a sharp comic timing that hasn't been much exploited in his television and film work. He consistently garners the laughs that are in place in Hammerstein's canny book, and he fully mines the newly ironic resonance of a line that hadn't made much of an impression before.

"One day I want to build a fence around Siam," the frustrated King announces to big laughs from the audience.

The production staged by Bartlett Sher remains in splendid shape, with the large ensemble and Michael Yeargan's elaborate sets, including a massive ship that sails out into the auditorium, representing Broadway production values at their most lavish. The key members of the supporting cast remain, including Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles as the King's chief wife and Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora as the doomed young lovers. And if the casting of the leads continues to be this impressive, there may well be many more Annas and Kings to come.