The King and I (Vivian Beaumont Theatre – NYC)

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 ****

One thought on “The King and I (Vivian Beaumont Theatre – NYC)

  1. I saw this production of K&I at Lincoln Center last Wednesday, June 17. Having seen many stage productions of K&I, including Yul Brynner several times, I found it very interesting and different from “standard” productions in some key ways. As you state in your review, this version is “less produced” than most major league productions of K&I. In the director’s comments in “Lincoln Center Review”, Mr. Sher stated that he did not want opulence to get in the way of the bones of the story. One of the things about the set that I found very interesting was the ever-present high, plain wall in the background, as if to suggest that once one is in the domain of The King, one does not leave. Anna’s clothing was also much more plain than usual, which makes sense; she is a widowed schoolteacher, and as she says to The Kralahome, “I must support myself and my young son.” Only her ballgown is splendid, and I can imagine she keeps that packed away in a trunk, to be used only for the most special occasion.

    For me, the biggest innovation in this version is the level of fear displayed by both Anna and Tuptim when dealing with The King. Anna is ordinarily portrayed as extremely confident and breezy, but, when you think about it, it would be terrifying to be in an entirely foreign environment addressing a powerful monarch. I thought Ms. O’Hara did a marvelous job of “shivering in her shoes” while at the same time asserting herself. This approach made me respect the character of Anna even more. During the ballet, I found it innovative to have Tuptim “shadow” Eliza at certain points, really bringing forward that the ballet is an allegory of her plight. When Tuptim makes her brazen comment to The King in the middle of the ballet, the actress plays it as if Tuptim immediately realizes that she has doomed herself. You can see her hope drain away at that point; she realizes she has sealed her own fate in that one careless moment and she can barely finish the ballet. I found that chilling and very effective. After the ballet, I felt that “Shall We Dance” was Anna’s way of trying to distract The King from acting further against Tuptim, and it wasn’t until the “big” polka that she really got wrapped up in it and her subliminal attraction to The King. What I liked about Mr. Sher’s approach is that all of these nuances can be found in the script as written by Mr. Hammerstein. This production has a new focus and a new feel while being true to the show as written.

    The one down side for me was Mr. Watanabe. I have great respect for him and he is obviously working very hard. But, I almost feel like he is working too hard; it felt like a performance to me rather than an embodiment of the character and I did not develop the empathy that I normally do for The King. I loved Ms, O’Hara, although I did notice her accent waned a bit as the play moved forward. I would have preferred the Overture as written, especially since one of the selling points of this production is the use of Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations, but the orchestra was superb in all regards. All in all, a very worthwhile evening and I am so pleased that so many are once again appreciating a really great classic, the themes of which are so relevant to what we are seeing in the world today.


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