BWW Reviews: Sher's THE KING AND I is South Pacific's Siamese Twin
Start at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater with a full orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett's extraordinarily textured original orchestrations. Have the musicians fully in view of the audience at first, then hide them under an expanding stage. Cast the sterling-voiced and fine acting Kelli O'Hara in the lead role opposite a foreign-born co-star making his Broadway debut. Have gorgeous visuals by Michael Yeargan (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Donald Holder (lights) that enhance the drama without overwhelming the actors.
Unfortunately, toning down the intended humor is also part of the formula, as is making textual revisions, though not as extreme and character-changing as the ones used in South Pacific.
That's not to say there isn't a wondrous time to be had, but newcomers to the piece may be more appreciative than those more familiar with the musical's dramatic potential.
Based on Margaret Landon's novel, Anna and the King of Siam, which was inspired by the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, the 1951 musical depicts Siam's 19th Century King Mongkut as a dominating ruler who, nevertheless, realizes he must adopt more progressive ideas in order to keep his country safe from colonization by powerful western nations. To that end he contracts the services of Anna, a widowed British schoolteacher, to teach his dozens of children and wives the English language and western culture.
The authority of a ruler, the importance of a promise, the education of women and the contrast of science over traditional beliefs are among the issues that cause tension between the two headstrong protagonists, but there's also an intended subtext of mutual admiration and attraction which comes to an unspoken climax in the musical's joyous and hesitantly sexual 11 o'clocker, "Shall We Dance?"
Alas, that subtext is not present in this production, owing much to the decision to have Ken Watanabe's king portrayed with over-the-top physicality and exaggerated facial expressions. His Mongkut is more of a wining adolescent than an imposing leader and O'Hara's reactions to him are more of eye-rolling frustration and occasional amusement than attraction. The texture of having Anna angry at herself for being seduced by him is non-existent.
The thickly-accented Watanabe, who is prone to slurring words together, is very difficult to understand and it's rather unfortunate that his one solo, "A Puzzlement," is followed by a scene where Anna reminds the children to watch their enunciation. His second act poem about honeybees and blossoms makes no impact when the audience can't decipher what he's saying.
The reliable O'Hara turns in lovely work, having Anna subtly manipulating changes in the king, but she's cast in a role that doesn't fully utilize her talents. Singing a score written for the limited vocal range of original star Gertrude Lawrence, O'Hara lightly coveys the serious undertones of "Whistle A Happy Tune," the lesson of being open to the ways of different cultures in "Getting To Know You" and the pained empathy she feels for a couple forbidden to be together in "Hello, Young Lovers," but the evening's soprano highlights are supplied by Ashley Park as Tuptim, who arrives in Siam as a gift from the king of Burma.
Conrad Ricamora sings with simple earnestness as Lun Tha, Tuptim's secret lover and their duet of one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most captivating love songs, "We Kiss In A Shadow," is tender and heart-touching. The traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein "older woman who sings an anthem" role is gracefully handled by Ruthie Ann Miles, as the king's favored wife, Lady Thiang, who always sees her husband's better side.
Christopher Gattelli bases his choreography on Jerome Robbins' original creations, including "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," a theatrical presentation based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, written and narrated by Tuptim as an attempt get a message across to the king about the injustice of slavery. Broadway fans more familiar with The Book of Mormon than Golden Age musicals may recognize this as the inspiration for "Joseph Smith, American Moses."
Like Lady Thiang sings of her husband, this is a production of The King and I that occasionally stumbles and falls, but it's never long before you'll be witnessing something wonderful.