Disappointing, but Still Satisfying Revival of a Favorite
By Lauren Yarger
When it comes to Broadway musicals, it doesn't get much better than The King and I for me. There's a longer story about the part this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic has played in my life (you can read it here), but suffice it to say I was really looking forward to Lincoln Center's revival of the musical starring the golden-voiced Kelli O'Hara.
It was disappointing, but still satisfying. The score still brings goosebumps and hearing O'Hara sing "Hello Young Lovers." I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance" with a 29-piece orchestra behind her was an experience I am glad I didn't miss. Other highlights are a well staged reproduction of the ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas" and a terrific performance by Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang.
The production, directed by Bartlett Sher (who did an amazing job with Lincoln Center's revival of South Pacific), seems as well intentioned as its opening number which features a massive boat sailing up onto the stage and out into the audience as Anna Leonowens (O'Hara) and her young son, Louie (a delightful Jake Lucas) expectantly arrive in mid-19th century Siam. The excitement of the opening number quickly dissipates as the rest of the sets (designed by Michael Yeargen) become rather minimal. And things really get complicated when the King (Ken Watanabe) arrives on the scene.
The Japanese actor, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his gripping performance in "The Last Samurai," doesn't speak English very well, and despite reports that he sought to improve his skills when people were complaining during rehearsals that he couldn't be understood, I'm afraid it was too little too late.
I know the script by heart (again, read here why I am obsessed with this musical) and I couldn't understand what he was saying most of the time. The main conversation almost everyone was having at intermission: "Can you understand anything the king is saying?" An after-show chat by a group of people who had never seen it before: "The music was beautiful!" "Oh, that dress -- all the costumes were beautiful!" "I couldn't understand anything the king said, though."
Clearly, Sher should have replaced Watanabe in rehearsals (though a critic colleague of mine who attended the same performance said he had absolutely no problem understanding Watanabe, so go figure.) The effect of leaving him in, besides missing a good part of the story, if you aren't familiar with it, also is that there is little chemistry between him and Anna. I felt as though O'Hara were sleepwalking through the part. I guess it's hard to engage in sizzling banter if you can't react to what is being said.....
The character interpretations for Anna and the King seemed off to me as well, communications aside. The King seemed weak -- his angry son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz), seems better able to convey a scorn-to-admiration transformation in his relationship with the teacher sharing Western thought with the court of Siam. And Anna seems so laid back, that we don't feel her contempt for the king's treatment of women, her anger in the song "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You," or even any justification for the king's telling her that she has "been very difficult woman." (OK, I still teared up when Anna read that final letter from the King.)
So you get the picture. It wasn't what I have dreamed..... It's still The King and I, though, so there is a lot to like.
That score! Still wonderful, and movement director Christopher Gatelli recreates a lot of the original choreography by Jerome Robbins. Sets pieces in Small House of Uncle Thomas even look like the originals.
Designer Catherine Zuber comes through with costumes we expect. There is pinstripe in the dress for the classroom scene of "Getting to Know You" the "Shall We Dance" dress dazzles and moves with perfection as the King (also clad in expected red and gold) and Anna polka around the stage.
Miles, who wowed us as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love, bring nuance to the King's head wife, Lady Thiang. She serves as a link between Anna, the King, his concubine and slave, Tuptim (Ashley Park), and the king's chief advisor, the Kralahome (a convincingly frightening Paul Nakauchi).
She also advises her son, Chulalongkorn, who is heir to the throne, and is key in another plotline involving Tuptim's plans to escape with her secret love, Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora), the man who was ordered to bring her to Siam as a present from the King of Burma.
Lady Thiang's character seems stronger than Anna, despite the King's reliance on the English woman to teach his children and wives and to assist him in matters of state, like when an English delegation led by Edward Ramsey (Edward Baker-Duly) arrives in Siam, which they consider taking as a protectorate because they hear the king is a barbarian.
The King and I plays at Lincon Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, 150 West 65th St., NYC. Tickets are $87-$142; 212- 239-6200; kingandibroadway.com.
Christians might also like to know:
-- There is some praying to Buddha