It’s best to remember when approaching any production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” that the 1956 film version remains banned in Thailand.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out why, even in a censorship-prone country: The musical was based on a novel that fictionalized the experiences of Anna Leonowens, a 19th century feminist whose own memoir recounting her years as a teacher of English in the royal court of Siam is considered suspect at best.
The story as it has come down to us from Rodgers and Hammerstein is a colonial fantasy in which an autocratic Asian king learns the errors of his narrow thinking from the smart English “governess” in his employ — a mind-bending exercise that, evidently, is too much for the king to process because it sends him to his death bed to be succeeded by his more enlightened 15-year-old crown prince.
Peddling colonial fantasies was hardly unusual in mid-20th century American films, plays and musicals, and “The King and I” could be considered the best-case example of how to make this sort of culturally condescending claptrap palatable.
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For one thing, the show is arguably Richard Rodgers’ best score; much of the music is utterly mesmerizing, thanks to his incorporation of “Oriental” motifs into songs that simmer with lush romanticism.
For another, Oscar Hammerstein wrote one of the great roles in musical theater when he created the King of Siam. Autocratic but insecure, commanding but plagued by self doubt, forward-thinking but tradition-bound, the king loves his people and, ironically, turns to Anna for counsel as he takes action to prevent his country from becoming a colonial protectorate.
Director Bartlett Sher, who staged Lincoln Center’s unforgettable revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” a few years ago, has brought back most of his key collaborators from that production, including choreographer Christopher Gattelli. As in “South Pacific,” this production uses the original 1951 Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations. And the music, ultimately, is what this production is all about.
Sher takes exquisite advantage of the thrust stage and steeply raked seating at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater by showcasing the orchestra during the overture. The musicians in the pit perform in full view of the audience.
As the show proper gets underway, the stage floor slides forward, obscuring most of the orchestra and allowing the first amazing optical illusion of the evening: the arrival of the ship carrying Miss Anna (the silver-voiced Kelli O’Hara) and her son Louis (young Jake Lucas).
Once the ship goes away, scenic designer Michael Yeargan uses the vast stage to suggest a limitless universe in which the affairs of humans, whether they be kings or hapless servants, seem poignant and, perhaps, ultimately insignificant. His version of the royal palace relies on a few carefully selected furniture pieces and enormous pillars that can descend or rise depending on a scene’s needs. Everything happens on a wooden floor polished to a high gloss.
Broadway theatergoers know what a fine singer O’Hara is — she was an exceptional Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” — but the chief point of interest in this production is the presence of the fine Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the king.
Watanabe, familiar to American filmgoers for memorable roles in “The Last Samurai,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” is an experienced stage actor, according to his resume. In Japan he performed in translations of “Hamlet,” “The Lion in Winter” and “The Royal Hunt of the Sun.”
So it’s no surprise to learn that he can hold the stage with kingly authority. His charisma seeks its own level in the big Beaumont theater. The performance is detailed, clever and touching.
Like Yul Brynner, who originated the role, Watanabe talk-sings his way through the numbers. There’s just one, regrettable problem. There are times, particularly in the songs, when his accent gets in the way, making some of the lyrics virtually indecipherable. Because the show is so familiar to theatergoers, this constitutes a minor setback.
But the heart of the show — the unrequited love affair between Anna and the king — is beautifully articulated.
The supporting cast is quite strong. Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang is a standout, as is Ashley Park as Tuptim, whose secretive romance with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora) ends badly.
Any production of “The King and I” can and should be judged by the major set piece of Act 2: the palace performance of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” for foreign dignitaries. The Siamese interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” walks a tightrope in terms of cultural stereotypes, but what amounts to a ballet dazzles as pure theater when it works.
In this production, the sequence is magnificent, and not just for the sumptuous costuming, Rodgers’ evocative music and the exceptional choreography. It’s the simple story of good and evil — of slaves running for freedom — that works its will on the viewers.
In a show filled with intoxicating imagery, the ballet is unforgettable.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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“The King and I” is nominated for nine Tony Awards. It’s running at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Go to www.lct.org or call 800-447-7400.