The first show I saw on this trip was the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. I know the 1956 film version very well and really like a lot of the score, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a stage production of the show. I had heard that it was a good production, and I expected nothing less from Lincoln Center after their excellent 2008 revival of R&H’s South Pacific.
The show began with the stirring though altered overture, and then the salmon/gold velvet curtain parted to real the head of a ship that, with the aid of a moving platform that extended out over the orchestra pit, forges out over the heads of the first few rows of the center orchestra. Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her son Louis (Jake Lewis) are on their way to Siam so that Anna can teach English to the King’s children and wives – or at least the ones in his favor. The King (Ken Watanabe) had over sixty children and was used to everything being his way, and… Oh, I feel silly summarizing the plot when most people reading this surely know it already. Suffice it to say that the score includes such gems as “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Shall We Dance,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Something Wonderful.”
The stage has incredible depth by using the forward thrusting platform and a series of decorative pillars and background projections, with pieces of furniture and props spaced about the various scenes to suggest locations rather than have big, lumbering sets. It works wonderfully well, even if it may come off as a little less produced than one may expect of a classic show of this caliber. The sound design is particularly clear and strong without sounding amplified. O’Hara’s voice is overpowered slightly in a few numbers by the orchestra, but only slightly, and overall I thought she did a clean job of portraying Anna.
I wasn’t thinking of Deborah Kerr from the film while seeing the show, but there were times, especially at the beginning, where I was recalling Yul Brennar and his diction in the role of King of Siam. Ken Watanabe, an Oscar nominee and stage performer in Japan, ingratiated himself to the audience throughout the show, but his voice did surprise me at the beginning. He sounded like someone was pinching his nose shut, and some of his dialogue was rendered unintelligible. His diction improves throughout, but it is odd that this King is no where near as proficient in English as his help.
Ruthie Ann Miles is a standout as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, even if her line readings during her first scene are strangely stilted and timed. She brings emotion to the song “Something Wonderful” that is rendered more subtly in the film, and her more heartfelt rendering took me by surprise.
The kids, twelve of the sixty plus, are all adorable and sweet, and they seem to have genuine affection and chemistry with O’Hara and even Watanabe, who is a warmer King than Brennar and less imposing. The audience was engaged throughout, breaking into applause at the beginning of “Shall We Dance,” and even the chatty older women around me were gasping and responding though they knew the show already. “Oh, I love this one,” I heard them sometimes remark as a particular tune would start. The remarks of recognition for the songs would change, but the general affection the audience felt for the show was ever present.
***/ out of ****