By Karen Isaacs
The opening of Lincoln Center’s revival of The King and I is spectacular. After listening to the lush overture played by a large orchestra — a rarity in today’s Broadway environment, a ship makes its way slowly onto the stage. As the ship moves forward, the stage also moves covering the orchestra until the ship is docked almost in the laps of the front row patrons.
From the ship emerges the captain, Louis and Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara). It is all there — the sunset lighting, the Siam (Thai) inspired wall hangings on each side of the stage — we are being transported.
What follows feels at times like total immersion in this culture. We feel as confused as Anna does with the traditions, attitudes and beliefs of the country.
For those who have forgotten the plot of this Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, it centers around the experiences of Anna, a young English widow with a son, who is hired to teach the children of the King of Siam, a man who is seeking to be a “modern” king. Though she has lived in the Far East for a long time, she still finds the court of Siam very different and there are no other English to help make the transition.
She meets the King’s powerful advisor Kralahome, and learns that although the King agreed to give her a house outside the palace gates no such home is ready for her and she is warned not to press the King on this matter. After meeting Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife and the King, she meets the other wives and the children — the King has over 60 children but Anna will only be teaching those whose mothers are favored.
Two subplots figure prominently in the show. The first involves Tuptin and Lun Tha. Tuptin is “given” to the King by the King of Burma and is delivered to him by Lun Tha. Unfortunately they love each other.
The second subplot involves the concern that Siam may be taken over by one of the European powers — the French had just made moves on another Indochina country and the British also were looking to expand their empire. The King is concerned that if he is viewed as a “barbarian” it will provide the western countries with the rationalization they are looking to find.
Both Anna and the King are fascinating, complex characters. Anna is a rarity for the 1860s; an independent woman making her way in the world when she could have retreated to a more secluded life. She also is willing, despite misgivings, to speak her mind and demand that she be taken seriously.
The King is equally complex. He is an absolute ruler who senses his mortality and the need to “modernize” his thinking. But he finds it difficult and confusing to do so; he understand the need to interact with the western world though he finds their ways “a puzzlement.”
This is a musical with a bittersweet ending; two love stories — one that is forbidden and one that is barely acknowledged ; both end with the death of the man.
Bartlett Sher has once again proven his expertise with Rodgers & Hammerstein. His revival at Lincoln Center of South Pacific was just about perfect and this production has many fine touches.
I particularly liked his handling of the introduction of the children to Anna. Each child had a unique personality that made them endearing in the way they interacted with their father and Miss Anna. With the help of his fine cast, these are not characters in a musical comedy but real people who just happen to occasional burst out into song.
Of course, Rodgers and Hammerstein gives them some marvelous songs from the opening “I Whistle a Happy Tune” right through to “Shall We Dance?” In between there are the soaring love songs — though often with a bittersweet tone — such as “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Hello, Young Lovers” as well as songs with a comic touch including “A Puzzlement” and “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” This is a varied and complete score that under the music direction of Ted Sperling reaches its full potential.
Yul Brynner has been identified with the role of the King — he was rocketed to stardom in the original 1951 production, starred also in the movie and in countless revivals and tours until his death. Let’s start by admitting the Brynner’s King was very theatrical and got more so the longer he played the role.
Ken Wantanbe, the well known Japanese actor, bring more realism to the role. His King is still autocratic, mercurial, demanding and sometimes menacing but yet he seems less like an actor and more like a person. He shows more of the King’s anxieties about the future, ruling and his own mortality. But there is a problem. Wantanbe is not as comfortable with English and therefore some of his lines are so heavily accented as to be difficult to understand. I suspect the longer the plays the role, the clearer he will become. It is not a consistent problem — much of his dialogue IS quite understandable but there are some lines than seem a puzzlement to him and the audience.
Once again Sher has teamed up with Kelli O’Hara who has perhaps the most lyrical voice of today’s leading ladies. O’Hara brings her famed ability to create a connection with both the audience and her leading man. She lets you see the uncertainty beneath the confident exterior and her scene with Sir Edward Ramsey, a British diplomat who obviously is attracted to her is touching. Plus, as usual, she sings magnificently.
Ruthie Ann Miles is fine as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park is radiant as Tuptim. Conrad Ricamora is excellent as Lun Tha.
The entire production is lush — from the costumes by Catherine Zuber, the sets by Michael Yeargan, the lighting by Donald Holder and the sound by Scott Lehrer.
A final note — I am not usually a big fan of the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” production which is put on for the British ambassador. It seems unnecessary and just delays getting to the final scenes as “Shall We Dance?” But this time, I enjoyed both the staging and the choreography.
The last scenes are always touching when the King and Anna become friends and realize though they do speak of it, their deep affection — dare we say love — for each other. It is then almost immediately followed by the King’s death.
As always these are touching, emotionally charged moments.
It you love The King and I or if you have never seen it, you should absolutely see this production at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Tickets are available through Telecharge.