Lincoln Center has done it again. First, there was the Theater’s ambitious revival of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical South Pacific in 2008. Now, the organization has revived another of the duo’s iconic works, The King and I, and it is a sumptuous and majestic production. Everything about the show is grand, from the musical’s opening, when a ship literally sails into the orchestra; to the large number of musicians in the pit; to the enormous cast; to the towering sets. This is how to experience a Rodgers and Hammerstein production.
The story finds widowed school teacher Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her son Louis (Jake Luscas) arriving into the port of Bangkok, Siam. She has been contracted to teach the children of the King (Ken Watanabe). Miss Anna is also part of the ruler’s plans to help modernize the country. Met by his highness’ Prime Minister (Paul Nakauchi) at the pier, the mother and son are whisked to the palace. There, after a number of weeks waiting for an audience, she finally meets the king; his many wives; the head wife Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles); and his numerous children, including Crown Prince Chulalongkorn (Jon Viktor Corpuz). We are also introduced to Tuptim (Ashley Park), a gift from the King of Burma to be added to the King of Siam’s coterie of wives, and her secret lover Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora).
Throughout the show there is a clash of wills between the two main protagonists, the King and Anna. He is arrogant. She is stubborn. They eventually come together in mutual respect. He needs her to help convince the soon arriving British government envoys he is no savage. She requires his support to further her educational goals. All of this occurs as he struggles with the complex and changing world around him.
The cast of The King and I is led by the superb Kelli O’Hara. Whether playing the dramatic (The Bridges of Madison County, Light in the Piazza) or the comedic (The Pajama Game, Nice Work If You Can Get It) this multi-Tony nominated actress is elegant, believable and intelligent. Here, resplendent in Catherine Zuber’s magnificent gowns, O’Hara is at the pinnacle of her acting talent with a powerful singing voice that enraptures. Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam commands the stage and gives a multi-layered performance as the ruler seeking to bring his country into modern times. The Japanese actor, making his American stage debut, has a passable singing voice that is only occasionally hard to understand.
Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang has a sonorous singing voice and a regal presence about her. Ashley Park’s Tuptim is defiant yet vulnerable. In his brief moments on stage Conrad Ricamora gives Lun Tha a determination and fortitude that proves his undoing. Viktor Corpuzand as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn artfully endows his character with equal parts bravado, apprehension and wonderment.
The score by Rodgers and Hammerstein contains one memorable song after another. Here is just a sampling -- “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” and “Shall We Dance.” It’s almost a sin to have so many well-known, tuneful songs in one show.
Director Bartlett Sher demonstrates, as he did with Lincoln Center’s South Pacific, that he can command a large production and integrate all its disparate parts into a consummate whole. Whether there are only one or two performers on stage or the entire cast Sher handles each scene with balance and aplomb.
Christopher Gattelli’s choreographer, based on the original work by Jerome Robbins, is understated throughout most of the production. He shines with a sparkling version of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet and an exhilarating “Shall We Dance” between Anna and the King.
The costumes by Catherine Zuber are glorious, whether emulating Far East styles or turn-of-the-century lady’s ware. The set design by Michael Yeargan is grand and elegant, but restrained. He gives the audience the impression of a spacious palace environment. The ship that sails onto the stage at the show’s start is striking.
The King and I, a beloved classic given an extravagant production.