'The King and I': Theater Review

Something wonderful

Kelli O'Hara reteams with her 'South Pacific' director Bartlett Sher, starring opposite Ken Watanabe in the evergreen 1951 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.

The mutual fascination and eternal struggle for understanding across the cultural divide between East and West is played out on a magnificent scale in Lincoln Center Theater's breathtaking revival of The King and I. As he did with the company's transcendent South Pacific seven years ago, director Bartlett Sher banishes even the faintest trace of mid-century quaintness or patronizing exoticism from the material, treating the 1951 Rodgers Hammerstein classic with unimpeachable dramatic integrity and emotional authenticity that are equaled by this landmark production's exquisite musicianship and vocals. As for the superlative leads, Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe, to say they are outstanding seems almost unfair given the uniform excellence of the massive ensemble.

The crippling economics of Broadway have long since ushered in the era of downsized casts and mini-orchestras, so the sheer spectacle value of an opulently costumed 50-member troupe, accompanied by 29 musicians in the pit, is enough to make a musical-theater lover's head explode. But this experience is not simply proof that size matters. It's also about texture. From the pared-down yet richly suggestive set designs of Michael Yeargan — which studiously avoid the kitschy Orientalism of so many revivals — to the nuanced characterizations and abiding preference for controlled, expressive singing over big-belt bravado, this production is a welcome testament to the power of delicacy in the age of the hard sell. I never wanted it to end.

From the moment her casting was announced, it was a safe bet that O'Hara, who has been impeccably directed by Sher not only in South Pacific but also The Light in the Piazza and The Bridges of Madison County, would bring something special to the role of Anna Leonowens, the widowed English schoolteacher who proves a headstrong match for the King of Siam. One of America's most gifted musical-theater performers, she attacks the role with staunch resilience but also an enveloping warmth that allows for moments of heartbreaking emotional candor even in anger. And that voice is its own woodwind section, with a crisp lightness and clarity that are all the more remarkable because the performance appears so effortless.

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Hearing O'Hara — under the faultless music direction of R&H expert Ted Sperling, and backed by the shimmering original orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett — sing ageless standards like "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?" is reward enough. But the revelation is the fiery internal conflict, and the frustration masking subconscious attraction that she pours into Anna's furious soliloquy, "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?" (This echoes the King's own soliloquy, "A Puzzlement," a few scenes earlier.)

Anna arrives in Bangkok on a slow boat from Singapore that looks as if it's going to keep on plowing right through the audience in a dazzling opening coup de théâtre. From her nervous introductions through her initial stubborn interactions with the King to her swell of maternal affection for his children, her grief-stricken horror at his actions and her ultimate forgiveness, O'Hara's performance conveys a depth of feeling that seems boundless.

Watanabe is a seasoned theater actor in Japan making his American stage debut, and he's equally assured. There's been talk of diction problems during previews, but his imperfect English convincingly suggests how the speech of a mid-19th century Thai monarch with a curiosity about the West might sound. He nails all the traditional aspects of the character — the pride and imperiousness, the bold physicality and fierce charisma, the belligerent refusal to be contradicted — but he brings enormous humanity to the insecurities that separate the King's tradition-bound thinking from his eagerness to be perceived as a man of sophisticated intellect and progressive ideas. His alarm at being labeled a barbarian by the English is somehow touching, even when his harsh ways merit the description.

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What's perhaps most winning about Watanabe's performance is its mischievous humor. Watch the King's thought process register in his eyes and body language as Anna comes up with some notion that at first seems ludicrously foreign to him, until he arrives at its sound conclusion and then slyly claims credit for it as his own idea. The interplay between the two actors in these moments is delightful. And the joyous release when he takes off with Anna in a brisk polka to "Shall We Dance?," the pair of them galloping around the vast Beaumont stage, is sublime.

The King's affection for his multitudinous offspring is also conveyed with lovely restraint, even as he maintains the brusque formality that royal protocol demands throughout "March of the Siamese Children," an enchanting procession that manages to be all kinds of adorable without tipping over into cutesiness. Similarly understated but resonant is his love and respect for his senior wife, Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles), mother of presumptive heir Prince Chulalongkorn, played by Jon Viktor Corpuz with the aloofness that befits his father's son but also with a questioning intelligence that makes him his own man.

Miles has just come off an acclaimed run as Imelda Marcos in David Byrne's Here Lies Love, and she shows a different side of her range here with a performance of tremendous dignity and soulfulness. Wise and serene, Lady Thiang desires only for her husband to be the great man he wants to be. Miles gets arguably the show's most beautiful song, "Something Wonderful," and she makes it a majestic hymn of devotion. There's romance and piercing melancholy also in the scenes between the clandestine young lovers, Tuptim (Ashley Park), a "present" sent from Burma for the King, and Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora, another Here Lies Love alumnus), the envoy charged with delivering her. Their duet, "We Kiss in a Shadow," is another shot of purest rapture, and their sad fate packs wrenching pathos.

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There are moments of pageantry and spirituality throughout, but in terms of extraordinary spectacle and thematic complexity, the high point is the ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." It's as essential to the show as the conflicted longing between Anna and the King, in that Harriet Beecher Stowe's abolitionist novel, given by the schoolteacher to Tuptim, provides the concubine with the courage to seek her own emancipation. And it's presented during a dinner for an English diplomat, with the royal wives trussed up in uncomfortable hoop skirts and leather shoes in a misguided attempt to impress their colonialist guest. (The wives' number, "Western People Funny," which is often dropped, is a wry comment on this uneasy cultural exchange.)

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli based the "Uncle Thomas" interlude on Jerome Robbins' famous original staging, which was inspired by Southeast Asian court dancing. A piece of vintage Americana reinterpreted through the prism of an entirely different cultural sensibility, this hypnotic mini-narrative is a gorgeous yet unsettling representation of the collision of two worlds, each with its own off-kilter morality. It also incorporates the simple but magical discovery from Anna's classroom of ice and snow. The design elements by Yeargan, costumer Catherine Zuber and lighting genius Donald Holder are especially ravishing here. And in the lead role of Eliza, XiaoChuan Xie, a former soloist with the Martha Graham Dance Company, is mesmerizing.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II revolutionized the American musical in the 1940s with Oklahoma! and Carousel, and their classic shows are often unfairly consigned via over-familiarity to the vault of dusty relics. But what's so uplifting is that Sher approaches their work not as a nostalgia exercise. Perhaps even more than South Pacific, his production of The King and I — which has not a single false moment, either dramatically or musically — honors the composing team's legacy with a richly entertaining revival that takes the term literally by infusing the material with vibrant, soul-stirring life.

Cast: Kelli O'Hara, Ken Watanabe, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, Conrad Ricamora, Edward Baker-Duly, Jon Viktor Corpuz, Murphy Guyer, Jake Lucas, Paul Nakauchi, Marc Oka, Christie Kim, Kristen Faith Oei, Kei Tsuruharatani, Autumn Ogawa, Ethan Halford Holder, Lamae Caparas, Hsin-Ping Chang, Ali Ewoldt, Maryann Hu, Misa Iwama, Sumie Maeda, Diane Phelan, Lainie Sakakura, Ann Sanders, Michiko Takemasa, XiaoChuan Xie, Andrew Cheng, Cole Horibe, Kelvin Moon Loh, Paul Heesang Miller, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Brian Rivera, Bennyroyce Royon, Atsuhisa Shinomiya, Kei Tsuruharatani, Christopher Vo, Adriana Braganza, Amaya Braganza, Lynn Masako Cheng, Olivia Chun, James Ignacio, William Poon, Ian Saraceni, Rocco Wu, Timothy Yang

Director: Bartlett Sher

Music: Richard Rodgers

Book & lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II, based on the novel 'Anna and the King of Siam,' by Margaret Landon

Set designer: Michael Yeargan

Costume designer: Catherine Zuber

Lighting designer: Donald Holder

Sound designer: Scott Lehrer

Music direction: Ted Sperling

Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett

Dance & incidental music arranger: Trude Rittmann

Choreographer: Christopher Gattelli, based on original choreography by Jerome Robbins

Presented by Lincoln Center Theater, in association with Ambassador Theatre Group