Like many people, I am so familiar with THE KING AND I through many productions and, of course, repeated viewings of the film, that I know not only the songs by heart, but also the dialogue. Yet I never tire of this musical play, perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein's best. Like any classic, it is open to many interpretations, particularly of the role of the king, from Yul Brynner's sexy posing to Lou Diamond Phillips's boyish charm to Ken Watanabe's intellectual energy. It's harder to bring the same variety to Anna, though we read her differently over the sixty-plus years since the musical first opened. Now she seems less a superior Westerner bringing liberal democratic values to an autocratic court than a feminist asserting the rights of women. After all, what is unusual about this Victorian woman is her willingness to assert herself in a male-dominated society and getting away with it. In Bartlett Sher's visually beautiful, thoroughly thought-out production, we see that it is Anna's intelligence that fascinates and ultimately wins over the king. In general he thinks women are inferior because the women he has seen are conditioned to act inferior, but he knows that Anna is as smart as he is and he needs her understanding of the West to stave off encroaching imperial powers.
THE KING AND I is one of Oscar Hammerstein's less sappy-sentimental books. Anna and the King are both hard-headed. Tuptim, the young Burmese who is brought to the King as a gift is equally willing to fight for what she wants and what she is against, but doesn't share Anna's privileged position. If only her lover, the Burmese envoy Lun Tha was as well written -- he's there to sing the ballads. Even a fine singing actor like Conrad Ricamora cannot make Lun Tha more than cardboard, partly because he never gets to sing a lyric that is specific to his character. One of the oddities of THE KING AND I is that Lun Tha and Tuptim's two ballads are beautiful melodies set to sappy lyrics that aren't specific character or situation. "I Have Dreamed" is one of my favorite songs in the musical (sadly cut from the film), but the lyric is awful ("I have dreamed/And enjoyed the view" -- ugh!). Throughout, however, Richard Rodgers was inspired. He would never again write a score this strong. The rest of the fifties and beyond represent a sad decline.
Bartlett Sher is a master at brilliantly mastering the problematic stage of the Vivian Beaumont. The production is beautiful, from the staging to Michael Yeargan's simple but lovely sets to Catherine Zuber's ravishing costumes. And, praise the lord and the sound engineer, the show does not seem to be miked at all.
The cast is uniformly fine. Kelli O'Hara makes Anna hers from beginning to end. She can be a bland actress, but her Anna is feisty, but always ladylike. She sings the role better than anyone I have seen, with the exception of Barbara Cook. Ken Watanabe is not the first non-singing actor to play the King. He has a very specific take on the role. This is an intelligent, well-meaning man who is limited by his education and training. Until now, he hasn't had to connect to the wider world and wants to succeed at it. Under Sher's direction he manages to make the King Anna's equal rather than a sexy child-man. At times one cannot understand his accent, but we all know what he is saying and singing by heart. Ruthie Ann Miles, who was so wonderful as Imelda Marcos in HERE LIES LOVE makes Lady Thiang a more three-dimensional character than I have seen. Ashley Park makes Tuptim a tough cookie and Conrad Ricamora, also terrific in HERE LIES LOVE, does all that one can do with Lun Tha. All three sing beautifully. Cheers, too, for the excellent, large orchestra.
I was happy to see so many families in the audience. This is a show everyone should see, a show about real people and real issues, not cartoon characters -- and with a gorgeous score.
THE KING AND I . Vivian Beaumont Theatre. April 4, 2015.