From the very first moments of Lincoln Center’s ravishing The King and I, it feels like a privilege just to be sitting in the audience. First the 29 musicians play Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lush overture in an orchestra pit that looks to be in the middle of the auditorium. Then suddenly a magnificent ship slides all the way out over that orchestra pit in a rolling fog.
On the ship is Kelli O’Hara in a 19th century hooped skirt as widowed British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens; she soon starts singing “Whistle A Happy Tune” – a rendition that is not only gloriously voiced, but made to seem like pragmatic advice from a straight-shooter, effectively sapping any potential sappiness out of it. Before she is even finished, dozens of ensemble members as citizens of Siam walk down the aisles and crowd onto the huge jutting stage as if peopling the busy Bangkok waterfront, followed by an entourage from King Mongkut, who has hired Anna to teach his children as part of his effort to modernize his country.
View all production photos on NewYorkTheater.me
And so it goes, each scene flowing seamlessly, and splendidly, into the next, helmed by Bartlett Sher, with his spectacular design team and the largest cast on Broadway, easily 50 people, allowing for the breathtaking spectacle this musical deserves.
But, as the title implies, the show is also about a personal relationship, and the scenes with two or three characters are effective, and often affecting.
It is hard to imagine a better Anna than Kelli O’Hara, who plays her as a loving teacher but also a natural leader, who won’t let her gender get in her way, even in the 1860’s. She manages to be simultaneously no-nonsense and romantic, confident and vulnerable. And her singing is stunning. O’Hara has been nominated five times for a Tony Award, including for the other splendid Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration with Barlett Sher, South Pacific. Maybe the sixth time will be the charm.
O’Hara has found her match in Ken Watanabe, a Japanese actor who is best known to American audiences for his performances in films such as The Last Samurai and Letter from Iwo Jima. He plays the king as commanding and intelligent, more similar to Anna than he (or she) can ever see. There may never be an actor more identified with this role than Yul Brynner, who is said to have performed it 4,625 times on stage, and any actor portraying King Mongkut probably remains in his shadow, although he died in 1985. But Watanabe’s performance feels less mannered – not so much posing and strutting – and thus maybe more authentic. There has been much talk – even in the lobby during intermission the day I saw this show – of Watanabe’s thick accent. His words are crystal clear when he speaks; if an occasional lyric is unclear, this stands out only because of the unusual clarity of the rest of the singing.
As for the rest of the cast, among the stand outs are two veterans of the David Byrne/Fatboy Slim musical about Imelda Marcos, Here Lies Love, Ruthie Ann Miles, and Conrad Ricamora, who portrayed Imelda’s early boyfriend and political rival. Here Miles is Lady Thiang, the king’s head wife, a role that shows off her acting chops and her amazing voice. Ricamora plays Lun Tha, the doomed Burmese lover of Tiptim (Ashley Park, another stand out). Their songs together, especially “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” are guaranteed to make you cry, if not because of their impossible love, because of his smooth, smooth singing voice.
The King and I may not be universally viewed as among the best American musicals; it didn’t make the cut in the Library of America’s recent collection of 16 “Broadway classics.” Perhaps one reason is its implicit politics.
Now, I suspect many theatergoers have listened to the songs in the show since before they could speak, and respond to them not just for the beauty of their melodies, but for the personal memories they evoke. Others without such childhood associations may dismiss the show as an apology for imperialism.
I tend more towards the first camp. For one thing, there are lines in the show that clearly sympathize with the plight of Siam in the midst of 19th century colonial designs on the region by the European powers.
On the other hand, consider “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a ballet in the musical that is spoofed memorably in The Book of Mormon. It in turn takes a milder comic poke at the lack of understanding by the Thai people of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and, by extension, their ignorance of American culture and history. It is to the show’s credit (and that of the director) that this is not played for laughs; rather, the narrator Tiptim connects the situation of the slaves with her own, leading to an emotional climax.
However, the ballet brings home a fact that is hard to deny: The King and I shows little interest in introducing us to another culture. This is not really Thai culture we’re witnessing in that ballet; it’s a mash-up based on a mix-up. It’s surely meant benignly, but it encourages us to identify with the prevailing world view (of the 1860’s – and of the 1950’s as well?) – that European morality and culture are superior to any other.
I asked a friend of mine from Thailand what people in that country think of The King and I. The show has never been staged there, he told me; the movie is banned to this day. It is full of inaccuracies. “Most Thais think it’s offensive to portray the monarch and the royal family that way.”
The King and I is on stage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater of Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street on the Lincoln Center campus.
Tickets and Details