Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 16, 2015
The King and I Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Based on the Original Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Music direction by Ted Sperling. Sets by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Catherine Zuber. Lighting by Donald Holder. Sound by Scott Lehrer. Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. Dance & incidental music arranged by Trude Rittman. Cast: Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, Conrad Ricamora, Edward Baker-Duly, Jon Viktor Corpuz, Murphy Guyer, Jake Lucas, Paul Nakauchi, Marc Oka, and Aaron J. Albano, Adriana Braganza, Amaya Braganza, Billy Bustamante, LaMae Caparas, Hsin-Ping Chang, Andrew Cheng, Lynn Masako Cheng, Olivia Chun, Ali Ewoldt, Ethan Halford Holder, Cole Horibe, MaryAnn Hu, James Ignacio, Misa Iwama, Christie Kim, Kelvin Moon Loh, Sumie Maeda, Paul HeeSang Miller, Rommel Pierre O’Choa, Kristen Faith Oei, Autumn Ogawa, Yuki Ozeki, Stephanie Jae Park, Diane Phelan, Sam Poon, William Poon, Brian Rivera, Bennyroyce Royon, Lainie Sakakura, Ann Sanders, Ian Saraceni, Atsuhisa Shinomiya, Michiko Takemasa, Kei Tsuruharatani, Christopher Vo, Rocco Wu, XiaoChuan Xie, Timothy Yang.
Of their best shows, The King and I (1951) is probably the most relevant for us today. Adapted from Margaret Landon's 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, about Englishwoman Anna Leonowens being hired as a teacher for that country's King Mongkut, it speaks, sings, and surges exhorting the necessity of respect for others — of different places, skin colors, and philosophies — while cautioning that such a bestowal cannot ever be strictly a one-way transaction. (One of its best-known songs, "Getting to Know You," deals explicitly with the reciprocal benefits of reaching across borders.) If that's not a message of unusual vitality and resonance for 2015 America, what is?
It would be a pleasure to be able to report that the new revival of The King and I, for Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont, lives up to all the promise of the piece and its current participants, who include director Bartlett Sher and stars Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe. Unfortunately, although the script and score — when they're left alone — remain excellent, too many other critical elements are simply not up to the task of propelling everything into the furthest reaches of your mind and heart, as happens, apparently effortlessly, in the best productions.
When Anna (O'Hara) arrives in Siam with her son, Louis (Jake Lucas), they're drastically out of place, their billowing clothing and upright, self-assured manner standing in jarring opposition to what they observe in the people they meet. Often half-naked, or dressed otherwise immodestly, and their bows low to the point of prone, the Siamese are not, under their king, encouraged — or allowed — to express themselves on a level equivalent to his.
Anna's strong personality and point of view affect both him and his numerous wives and children when she teaches them, helping wear down the King's resistance on two fronts. If the willingness of both to change has limits, by the end of the show you see exactly how far each has come, and the extent of the world-shifting impact of each of their journeys to the center.
The sweeping subject justified its original huge treatment, and that's been significantly respected here. The cast numbers more than 40 adults and (gifted) children. Catherine Zuber's costumes are colorful, resplendent, and abundant, whether they're Asian or Western in style. Though they're often subtle and subdued, Donald Holder's lights are intimately tied to the emotions of every scene. Christopher Gattelli's choreography, based on Jerome Robbins's original dances, is unerringly right. Scott Lehrer's sound design has the distinctly natural ring that characterizes all good amplification — this is especially important given the consistently outstanding work of Ted Sperling's 29-piece orchestra.
This is where the problems begin creeping in. Playing Robert Russell Bennett's peerless orchestrations and Trude Rittman's superb dance arrangements, those players sound glorious. But whereas the overture in Sher's 2008 production of South Pacific was a huge selling point, The King and I's has been hacked, slashed, and rewritten to be so pallid and pointless, it may as well have been cut altogether; it's utterly incapable of christening the evening on a wave of majesty. Additional revisions, which include a number of new (and bland) lines ostensibly from Hammerstein's earlier drafts (but should have been left in history's discard pile, if so), and cutting much of the King's defining number, "The Puzzlement," vitiate other sections of the show almost as much.
Then there are the performances, of which standouts are few. Ashley Park plays the slave girl Tuptim with desperate conviction (particularly during the lengthy and impressive "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet), and puts her yearning-choked soprano to exquisite use in "We Kiss in a Shadow," "I Have Dreamed," and especially "My Lord and Master." As the crown prince, Chulalongkorn, Jon Viktor Corpuz unleashes a haughty ferocity that instantly fixes his position in the conservative-progressive spectrum, and Lucas brings intelligent, self-preserving spunk to Louis; the one brief reprise of "A Puzzlement" the two young men sing is a genuine highlight.
Ruthie Ann Miles (recently of Off-Broadway's Here Lies Love) is oddly indefinite and insecure as the King's lead wife, Lady Thiang, and too vocally underwhelming to sell her solo, "Something Wonderful," a key theme statement. (She's much better in the lighter "Western People Funny," which many productions cut but Sher has wisely retained.) Conrad Ricamora (also of Here Lies Love) is too aloof, tight, and distant as Tuptim's lover, Lun Tha, and sounds uncomfortable singing his classically styled romantic songs. Paul Nakauchi (as the King's Kralahome), Murphy Guyer (as the ship captain who ferries Anna), and Edward Baker-Duly (as the face from the past who threatens to steal her away again) fulfill their roles' basic requirements with no real distinction.
Sadly, the same is true of the leads. Both are admittedly hampered from the outset, as Anna and the King were respectively created by charisma-rich Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner (who, to this day, is inextricably identified with the King), and thus the roles are written to demand similarly sweeping talents. But at the minimum they must embody vividly opposing sides in a brutal, blunt-force battle of wits, which O'Hara and Watanabe cannot do.
If O'Hara is, as always, a sumptuous soprano, her stage presence here is rather less than electrifying, and Anna's specific feisty, forthright personality does not sit well on her. This is never more evident than in the angry "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?", when her rage resembles that of a calorie-counter taking a sip of Coke thinking it's Diet Pepsi. But her feelings don't dip below the surface at any time, even during her big ballad, "Hello, Young Lovers"; hers is a woman imagining what love that total might be like, not someone who's hanging onto it with every thread of her being.
Watanabe, so memorable in films like Batman Begins, The Last Samurai, and Inception, does not seem to come across as adventurous, daring, or conflicted as the King must. I say "seem" because Watanabe is obviously (still) having serious difficulties with English diction, and many lines at the performance I attended were garbled and a handful were lost altogether. His portrayal is obviously smart, and it may also be complex, but his stumbling over the language for three hours makes it impossible to know for sure.
Sher's magic just hasn't kindled this time around as it did with South Pacific, and a result this King and I is not remotely all it could be. But even with the missteps, it retains an enormous amount of power in its finale, when we witness what Anna and the King's back-and-forth means for both the present and the future. Change is inevitable, Hammerstein cries across the decades — what matters most is how you cope with it. We can't hear such a statement too much. But we could more easily hear and absorb it if Sher's production better supported it and the gorgeous writing that crafted it.