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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE KING AND I
at Vivian Beaumont Theater

A FRESH CLASSIC
By DIANE SNYDER

  Kelli O'Hara, Ken Watanabe and company/ Ph: Paul Kolnik

If justification were needed for why classic musicals should be restaged time and again, look to Lincoln Center Theater. Its production of South Pacific seven years ago was one of the most exquisite Broadway revivals in recent memory, capturing the beauty of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score, the romance of the love stories and the courage of those who served in World War II.
 
Such a triumph would be hard to top, but this revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical The King and I comes close. Staged by South Pacific director Bartlett Sher and starring that show’s leading lady, Kelli O’Hara, it’s a delectable feast for the eyes, ears and heart. O’Hara is excellent at blending wholesomeness and sophistication as Anna Leonowens, a spirited British schoolteacher who treks to Bangkok in the 1860s to become governess to the King of Siam’s wives and children.
 
She’s well matched by Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai), making his American stage debut playing the forbidding monarch who comes to respect and even admire the stubborn widow as their cultures and personalities clash. Although sometimes hard to understand, Watanabe brings a frisky quality to the role that doesn’t lessen the King’s authoritarian ways, especially where Tuptim (Ashley Park), the concubine slave he receives as a gift from the King of Burma, is concerned.
 
From the start, this production excites. The size of the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s vast thrust stage allows the ship carrying Anna and her young son Louis (Jake Lucas) to Siam to practically “sail” into the audience. From there, as Anna is delivered to the palace, set designer Michael Yeargan fills the stage with an imposing array of gold and purple. Likewise, Catherine Zuber’s costumes evoke grandeur and exoticness.
 
It’s a world that Anna finds both beautiful and barbaric. The former comes as she spends time with his many wives and children, notably in the delightful and beautifully staged “Getting to Know You.” But the King isn’t exactly a human rights champion, so Tuptim and the man she loves, Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora), can only meet secretly, with Anna’s help. Their songs, “We Kiss in Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed,” resound with passion and heartbreak. Another musical highlight is Ruthie Ann Miles (Imelda Marcos in the Public Theater’s Here Lies Love) as Lady Thiang, the King’s favorite wife, singing “Something Wonderful.”
 
But the pièce de résistance remains “Shall We Dance?,” as Anna schools the King in the ways of Western courtship and they twirl around the stage to Christopher Gattelli’s choreography. O’Hara dazzles in a gorgeous lavender satin dress with humongous hoop skirt.
 
At its heart, The King and I is a story about learning to grow and change, as demonstrated by Prince Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz), who is being prepped to take over for his father, and by the struggles of the King himself. Because it so often subverts musical theater expectations in terms of its love stories, it can be a tricky show to stage. But even if the affection between Anna and the King doesn’t always come across here, Sher’s production is still as emotionally evocative as one could hope for. We know we’re watching a classic musical, yet it’s like seeing it for the first time. 

 


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