From the moment conductor Ted Sperling strikes up his stellar 29-piece orchestra for the overture to The King and I, we know we’re in for a great show. The quality of Richard Rodgers’ unforgettable music is just so rich, spontaneous applause breaks out. It’s an auspicious beginning to what turns out to be the best revival of the season. Director Bartlett Sher has brought The King and I thrillingly to life for a new generation within Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. By the time Anna’s steamship sails over the orchestra pit and straight toward house left, we’re sold.
Sher made his 2005 Broadway debut in the Vivian Beaumont with The Light in the Piazza, which featured the captivating Kelli O’Hara. The two reunited at LCT for the 2008 Tony Award-winning revival of South Pacific, solidifying Sher’s reputation as a premier interpreter of musical theater and O’Hara’s place as one of the brightest stars on Broadway. With The King and I, they return to LCT in their most exciting collaboration to date.
First staged in 1951, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I is based on Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King of Siam, a partly fictionalized account of English governess Anna Leonowens in the royal court of Siam (present-day Thailand) in the early 1860s. O’Hara portrays Anna, and Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe makes his American stage debut as King Mongkut.
The King hires Anna to provide a Western education to the children of his favored wives (of which he has many). It’s all part of his plan to modernize Siam and protect it from the encroaching British and French Empires. Through a series of cultural misunderstandings and contentious encounters, Anna and the King forge a deep friendship. The King realizes that she is the only person in a palace full of yes-men who always tells him the truth. When the King accuses Anna of instilling in Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz) a dislike of the practice of groveling before the King, she responds, “Oh I hope so, your Majesty! I do hope so!”
The notion that an English schoolteacher was the catalyst for the reforms of the Chulalongkorn era is one of the reasons why The King and I is banned in Thailand to this day. The government sees it as a colonialist insult to the proud legacy of an independent Thai monarchy. One wouldn’t naturally expect a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to be so provocative, yet this one has plenty of controversy to spare: The King and I is often accused of promoting “yellowface” (non-Asian actors playing Asian roles). Certainly, the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner (who originated the King on Broadway) is guilty of this increasingly unacceptable practice. This production features all Asian actors in the Siamese roles. This proves to be a wise choice not just for the sake of political correctness, but also because of the immense concentration of talent exhibited onstage.
Ruthie Ann Miles (who originated the role of Imelda Marcos in the off-Broadway hit Here Lies Love) gives a stirring performance as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife. Her performance of “Something Wonderful” overflows with genuine love and affection for the difficult King. Ashley Park brings an inner fierceness marked with sadness to Tuptim, a junior wife gifted to the King from the court of Burma. We can’t help but wish the best for her and her secret lover Lun Tha (the dreamy Conrad Ricamora). The two have a steamy chemistry that promises to break our hearts.
Departing sharply from the machismo of Yul Brynner, Watanabe plays a severely anxious King. He really lets his guard down in “A Puzzlement,” when it’s just him alone onstage. Yet whenever he’s in the presence of his subjects, he masks this apprehension with a thin veneer of certainty, at which O’Hara adroitly chips away.
O’Hara has never been in finer form than she is here. Her radiant soprano lends an organic sweetness to songs like “Getting to Know You” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” without resorting to a high-fructose-corn-syrupy sound. O’Hara has an irrepressible ability to connect with an audience. We share her trepidation as she first approaches the palace, her joy as she makes new friends, and her sorrow as those friendships sour. Just try not to become verklempt as she reads a second-act letter from the King — I dare you.
With outstanding performances from his cast, Sher (whose work has regularly been seen on the stage of the adjacent Metropolitan Opera) is free to focus on the big picture. He brings the grandeur of opera to this mounting. The sheer number of bodies onstage is breathtaking. Sher composes his mise-en-scène with the detail of a painter working on an enormous canvas.
The design team has followed suit, with Catherine Zuber creating a huge number of looks for this massive cast. O’Hara’s lavender party dress is particularly memorable, as is the pseudo-Elizabethan look of the wives during the second-act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Choreographer Christopher Gattelli gorgeously stages this number, synthesizing elements of Southeast-Asian dance with good-old-fashioned Broadway storytelling. Set designer Michael Yeargan takes full advantage of the depth of the Beaumont, creating scenes that are both opulent and open for performance. One can’t help but grin from ear to ear as O’Hara and Watanabe gallop through the cavernous halls of the palace during “Shall We Dance.”
There’s so much to love about this revival of The King and I. Those looking for a time-honored Broadway musical realized on a grand scale could do no better.