When all the elements fuse, when a director is clearly in charge and on the right track, it is such a pleasure to be out front watching everything come together, to make magic from first light to final curtain call. Such is the case with the vibrant and vastly entertaining revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, which is now packin’ ’em in at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center.
That director is Bartlett Sher who re-energized another R and H masterwork, South Pacific just seven Aprils ago under the same management of André Bishop at the same theatre. Most importantly, it involved the same Kelli O’Hara, this generation’s brightest light in musical theatre. Mr. Sher and Ms. O’Hara have now done four shows together, and we can only hope they’ll keep at it, for he extracts from her the most savory performances, and “Mrs. Anna,” her current creation, is the best of the lot.
Anna Leonowans is Welsh, has a 10 year-old son, is a school teacher who’s agreed to teach the many children of the King of Siam in the 1860s. Her introduction into the ancient ways of this Buddhist land and its despotic ruler gave Mr. Hammerstein rich material from which to write his book and lyrics. Based on Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam and the non-musical film that followed, he’s filled the musical with memorable insights, images, and characters who are enhanced by the glorious musical score supplied by his partner Richard Rodgers.
To launch all this richness of course requires consummate skill in casting, André Bishop and Telsey and Co. Casting must have been in a benevolent mood when they approved the budget for this truly gargantuan production, complete with a floating ship on which Anna and her son arrive in Siam, a Buddha that almost touches the sky, and a company of 50 actors, singers, and dancers who permit the most fluid and extraordinary staging in recent memory.
Ms. O’Hara is the engine that drives the show, and she delivers like the great star she has become. From the start, when she convinces her frightened son that it’s up to him to face and fight his fear, she delivers “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” She denudes it of all treacle, and when she’s through, we and her son Louis are putty in her hands. All of the standards that follow seem newly minted when she infuses them with her crystal clear light soprano voice. By the time she’s offered us ‘Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” and “Shall We Dance?” we are groaning with pleasure. Even I, who have vivid memories of Gertrude Lawrence, the original in the role, have placed them aside for the moment, leaving room for Ms. O’Hara’s interpretations to stand right beside them. They are different of course, but equal, each delivering a performance of great charm, authority, and fun.
Yul Brynner made a career of the King, returning to him again and again in the years after he first delivered him to us in 1951. In his place now we have Japanese star Ken Watanabe who is making his American stage debut. He has difficulty with our language, but for me that only made his King the more authentic, fascinating, and intriguing. He has full command of his toned body and he is an actor capable of handling everything from outrage to the tender tease. It helps to have some acquaintance with the lyrics before seeing the show, but it’s by no means necessary. He has more trouble with “Is A Puzzlement” than with “Shall We Dance?” but his acting in the former makes his meaning clear enough. The chemistry between him and Mrs. Anna is palpable and that’s what makes that relationship come totally alive. Ultimately, it justifies all the decisions made by both of them.
In support, I have never seen a more moving Tuptim and Lun Tha, the lovers who sing “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed,” both of which float out to us on a romantic cloud. Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora have all the qualities to bring them to vivid life. Endowed with beautiful voices, youth and beauty. they can act as well, and they engage us totally in their fierce attempt to free her from her assigned role of slave and servant to the King. Ruthie Ann Miles is Lady Thiang, the king’s first of many wives and mother of his heir apparent, is another major contributor to the evening’s treasure chest of pleasures. “Something Wonderful” is hers, and she stops the show with it.
A couple of remarkable pluses add to our enjoyment. Anna’s young son Louis is played with great aplomb by young Jake Lucas. The ensemble is large and strong, and in the “Uncle Thomas” ballet choreographed by Christopher Gattelli based on original work by Jerome Robbins, it serves the book as well as the score. Scott Lehrer’s sound design gives proof positive that talent and proper guidance can deliver sound that is slightly enhanced, but never the cause of distortion, as is the case with most musicals these days. His work is masterful in delivering crisp and clear sounds that are totally audible and do not turn the ladies in the ensemble into tinny screechers. It’s the best sound design I’ve heard all season, and it filled the vast Beaumont Theatre with all the glories of the great Richard Rodgers score. The design team has given us a visually stunning King and I that, along with the recent An American In Paris should set the standards for future revivals of musicals.
The King and I is a glorious 5 star winner.
Running Time: About 3 hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
The King and I is playing at The Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center-150 West 65th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, visit the Lincoln Center Box Office, or purchase them online.