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A CurtainUp Review
The King and I
By Elyse Sommer
The Original ReviewIt's not a puzzlement why The King and I retains its place in the top tier of grand old musicals. You know, the kind they don't make any more— with book that has something meaningful to say and a score with story-telling lyrics to make it soar melodically. I can't urge you strongly enough to dance over to Lincoln Center to see Bartlett Sher's ravishing production. It's not just something tried and true, but spectacularly fresh and new in terms of casting, staging and interpretation.
Like the creative team for the 1951 premiere of The King and I, this revival had both the plus and minus of following a previous Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, South Pacific . But as the original's producers need not have worried about that can-you top-this factor, so Bartlett Sher and his team have once again given theater goers the thrill of revisiting the golden era of grandly staged musicals with large casts and orchestras, but with a fresh new look, and outlook.
To begin my love letter to this old but bracingly new production, there's that gone forever pleasure of a large orchestra. The 29-piece orchestra is on full display as you take your seat at the Vivian Beaumont. With the last rich sounds of their overture comes a jaw- dropping coup-de-theater — the stage slides over all the musicians except conductor Ted Sperling, and with it comes a ship docks in the port of Siam. It carries the title's "I", Anna Leonowens (Kelli O'Hara) and her 12-year-old Son Louis . The widowed Mrs. Leonowens has been hired to teach English to the children of the King of Siam (Ken Watanabe).
O'Hara, who also starred in Lincoln Center's South Pacific and Light in the Piazza has never been better. Besides her typically ear caressing silky soprano, she plays the feisty school teacher with enormous depth and warmth. While conforming to the Victorian era's prim and proper fashions, her Anna is no timid damsel but an adventurous, free-spirited woman whose answer to her young son Louis's (the very likeable Jake Lucas) question about being afraid about this Siam adventure is "I Whistle a Happy Tune."
As most of us know, either courtesy of one of three Broadway productions or the classic movie version (in which Deborah Kerr's songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon), Anna has plenty to whistle about. Her main cause for resorting to whistling is her boss, the very autocratic King Mongut (Ken Watanabe, the Japanese movie star best known for The Last Samurai). His refusal to make good on his promise to provide her with a house outside the palace is just the beginning of their fraught relationship. The confrontational interaction is ratcheted up by Anna's revulsion at women's repressed situations and the general lack of dignity evident in seeing everyone, even the many wives and children groveling in the King's s presence.
But Rodgers and Hammerstein knew how to inject romance into their stories about the tensions caused by cultural differences. Thus there's a strong whiff of mutual respect and, yes, attraction, that helps Anna to understand the King's insecurity in the face of dominating European power and influence. The opposites attract push-pull that propels these title characters towards a bittersweet ending is stronger than ever, thanks to O'Hara and Watanabe's emotionally powerful and strong on chemistry performances.
When it comes to singing, O'Hara clearly is the lead here. Yet, while the Japanese Watanabe's English may not make every word of his big solo "A Puzzlement" crystal clear, this somehow heightens his character's struggle to make the modern world to see him as a modern man rather than a barbarian. He's at all times a commanding presence, and also often quite funny — and when he finally grabs O'Hara's Anna around the waist for their polka sizzles with enough sexual undercurrent. No wonder O'Hara and Watanabe stop just long enough to give themselves an encore spin around the stage.
Besides a Japanese actor to play the king, the entire King's retinue now features Asian actors, something unheard of when Yul Brynner first did that polka with Gertrude Lawrence. The diversity on display at the Beaumont's stage not only reflects the real world but underscores the relevancy of the themes that made R&H musicals so special and enduring. The world still has lots of girls whose fathers and husbands deny them the chance to be educated, so that King Moangkut's bringing in a teacher does make his blossoming respect and affection for the liberal Anna believable.
With a cast of fifty, it's impossible to say more than that their acting, singing and dancing is an all-around treat. There are, however, a few standouts demanding special shoutouts: Ruthie Ann Miles, last seen as the shoe-obsessed Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Lovely funny, is magnificent as the chief wife Lady Thiang. Her "Something Wonderful" is indeed wonderful, and "Funny Western People" (excised from past productions) is slyly funny.
Ashley Park's Tuptim and Conrad Ricamora's Lun Tha, the romantic duo of the Uncle Tom's Cabin inspired subplot romantic duo have two wonderful duets ("We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed"). And while I've been to musicals in which less than ten players have drowned out the singers, Ted Sperling and his musicians remain a subtle accompanists throughout.
The children are of course a major pleasure, with the youngsters, their mothers and Anna earning their applause with "the memorable "Getting to Know You." As for the choreography I could come back just to see Christopher Gattelli's sublimely staged version of Jerome Robbin's thrilling ballet interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, "The Small House of Uncle Tom.
The scenery, costumes and lighting are as magical as the music and performances. Except for that coup-de-theatre opening, the rest of Michael Yeargan's set design is notable for its unfussy elegance, unlike the more realistic opulence of the original. The emphasis is on evoking the location's authenticity, with painterly colors added by Donald Holder's lighting. Catherine Zuber's sumptuous costumes further enrich the many magical stage pictures.
Unsurprisingly, the show has already been extended to January. This is truly a something for everyone theatrical outing audiences, and that goes for anyone from nine to ninety.
A final note: Don't forget to pick up a copy of the Lincoln Center Theater Review. This always informative publication has outdone itself with their lavishly illustrated The King and I edition. The many fascinating features include an interview with Sandy Kennedy, who played Gertrude Lawrence's son in the original, a feature on King Mongkut's Siam with photographs actually taking by his concubines.
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The King and I
Inspired by Margaret Landon's novel Anna and the King of Siam
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Original Jerome Robbins Choreography by Christopher Gattelli, based on original choreography by Jerome Robbins
Cast: Kelli O'Hara (Anna Leonowens), Ken Watanabe (King of Siam), Ruthie Ann Miles (Lady Thiang), Ashley Park (Tuptim), Conrad Ricamora (Lun Tha), Edward Baker-Duly (Sir Edward Ramsey), Jon Viktor Corpuz (Prince Chulalongkorn), Murphy Guyer (Captain Orton), Jake Lucas (Louis Leonowens), Paul Nakauchi (Kralahome) and Marc Oka (Phra Alack)
Aaron J.Albana, Adriana Braganza, Amaya Braganza,Billy Butstamante, LaMae Caparas,Hsin-Ping Chang, Andrew Cheng, Lynn Masako Cheng, Olivia Chun, Ali Ewoldt, Ethan Halford Holder, Cole Horibe Angel, MaryAnn Hu, James Ignacio, Misa Iwama, Christie Kim, Kelvin Moon Loh, Sumie Maeda Topsy,Paul HeeSang Miller, Rommel Pierre O'Choa, Kristen Faith Oei, Autumn Ogawa, Diane Phelan, William Poon, Brian Rivera, Ann Sanders, Ian Saraceni, Atushisa Shinomya, Michiko Takemasa, Kei Tsuruharatani, Rocco Wu, XiaoChuan Xie, Timothy Yang
Scenic design: Michael Yeargan
Costume design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting design: Donald Holder
Sound design: Scott Lehrer
Musical direction: Ted Sperling
Stage Manager: Jennifer Rae Moore
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center
From 3/12/15; opening 4/16/1t; closing-- after multiple Tony nominations the show went to open-ended.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/19/15 press matinee
Re-reviewed 6/23/16, just 3 days before closing 6/26/16 (but with a touring production planned)
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