New York City Theater
"The King and I"
Vivian Beaumont Theater
As men and women of clashing cultures circle one another, temptations abound, love is not always simple and happy endings are not always guaranteed. Add lush music and lyrics that advance the story and you have Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s pioneer classics, “Oklahoma,” ”Carousel,” “South Pacific” and “The King and I,” the latter now being given a sumptuous production at Lincoln Center, with director Bartlett Sher and co-star Kelli O’Hara repeating their top-notch duties from their triumphant “South Pacific” in 2008.
Again we have sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Donald Holder, costumes by Catherine Zuber, sound by Scott Lehrer, choreography by Christopher Gatellli and music direction by Ted Sperling. This is a meticulous “King and I,” created by a “family” of artists, to be seen by everyone’s family.
Its exoticism is at once appealing and reinforced by enduring, uncomfortable themes of West vs. East colonialism, by condescension and by spousal abuse. Rodgers and Hammerstein don’t dig beneath the culture wars, nor could they anticipate the tribal terrors of today. But they’re incisive about the conflict between regression and progress and prescient about closed kingdoms, despotic rulers, slavish women, cowed children. This is musical theater not for the casual tourist only.
It is also impossibly moving. Who could resist the March of the Siamese children as adorable kids bow before the King of Siam, their father, then greet our heroine, the British Anna Leonowens? Hired to teach the children basic school subjects, Anna enlightens them about the outside world and its expansive demands, as well.
The main plot involves Anna and the King, her need for independence, his for absolute obedience while wanting to be considered learned and enlightened, not a “barbarian” as some label him. The Crown Prince, his mother and number-one wife Lady Thiang (a touching Ruthie Ann Miles), plus a pair of young lovers, Tuptim (a superb Ashley Park) and Lun Tha (a stalwart Conrad Ricamora) are all, in varying ways, orbiting around the puzzled king.
Challenge undoes him, climaxed by the magnificent “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, narrated by the obstinate Tuptim with a fierceness it has never had before. Fierce also is Anna, here played not as a doting schoolmarm dithering about cute kids, but an independent woman unwilling to be treated as a servant. She’s Gloria Steinhem in hoop skirts.
This may be Kelli O’Hara’s most mature role. Dignified yet playful, she has a tenacious glint in her eye. A woman used to getting her way, from her first entrance on a boat that looks as if it will sail right into the audience, O’Hara is a determined figure, capable of handling even a king.
As the sometimes seductive, sometimes petulant, equally resolute king, Japanese film star Ken Watanabe manages English well enough, but seems to be struggling with the characterization. He’s strong enough, however, to make manifest the wary battle between the king and Anna.
The “Shall We Dance” sequence still thrills, of course, as do other numbers: “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed.” Who writes like this these days? Will we ever hear its likes again? We can only hope.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 4, 2015