THE KING AND I comes as close to perfection as any musical in the canon. It boasts one of Richard Rodgers' greatest scores and Oscar Hammerstein's best work as lyricist and book writer. There is none of the cloying sentiment of Hammerstein's weaker work, nor does it have the second act problems that plague some of Hammerstein's books. The two central leads are the strongest characters Oscar Hammerstein ever created.
For years, in countless performances in New York and on the road, the show was presented as if the central character was The King, who has only one song, albeit a song that defines his character perfectly. Yul Brynner, the original King, toured the show forever. Even Rudolf Nureyev had a go at it. Yet the show is about a relationship, a complicated, deep friendship, between a tough representative of nineteenth century British colonialism who has come to teach the King's children -- and the King -- more civilized Western ways. And here is the big potential problem with THE KING AND I. For many it can be seen as politically incorrect, unless Anna Leonowens is presented as as complicated and morally complex as The King. Marin Mazzie and Daniel Dae Kim, the new leads in Bartlett Sher's production of THE KING AND I, do more than any performers I have seen, to create the clash of two very complicated characters. For the first time in the many performances of this musical that I have seen in my life, I believe the Prime Minister at the end, when he screams at Anna, "You have destroyed him." Marin Mazzie's Anna loves the children and is a bit of a sentimentalist, but she is dangerously unaware to her sense of Western entitlement and superiority. She sees nothing wrong with publicly humiliating a King in front of his subjects. The only question is why he allows her to do so. The answer is in the focus on gender politics in this cast's reading of the play. Daniel Dae Kim's King -- the best I have seen -- is smart, sexy, deeply confused, and in awe of a woman who does not act like a woman should act. What makes the performance I saw yesterday (the second performance for these two leads), so special is their chemistry. When I saw Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe is these roles a year ago, I thought they gave creditable individual performances but never felt that they played together very effectively. Mazzie and Kim are a partnership and the production is all the stronger for it.
Oddly the rest of the cast (the other leads have remained the same) are giving even more committed performances than they did the two previous times I saw the production.
If you saw this wonderful production before, I urge you to go again and see it with Mazzie and Kim. I have to add that for those of us who are fans of Marin Mazzie, it is a joyous experience to see her back on stage after her awful bout with cancer. She's as wonderful as ever.
THE KING AND I. Vivian Beaumont Theatre. May 4, 2016.