Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 27, 2016
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: Marin Mazzie, Daniel Dae Kim, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, Conrad Ricamora, Edward Baker-Duly, Jon Viktor Corpuz, Paul Nakauchi, Marc Oka, Rocco Sisto, Nicky Torchia, and LaMae Caparas, Hsin-Ping Chang, Andrew Cheng, Olivia Chun, Hana Colley, Avery Oliver Espiritu, Bonale Fambrini, Aidan Fong, MaryAnn Hu, James Ignacio, Misa Iwama, Jim Kaplan, Christie Kim, Mindy Lai, Analisa Leaming, Kasey YouMe Lee, Q Lim, Tony Marin, Paul HeeSang Miller, Koh Mochizuki, Rommel Pierre O'Choa, Arisa Odaka, Yuki Ozeki, Bobby Pestka, Emilio Ramos, Brian Rivera, Kitana Rojanatavorn, Bennyroyce Royon, Ann Sanders, Julius Sermonia, Atsuhisa Shinomiya, Alicia Shumway, Michiko Takemasa, Kei Tsuruharatani, Christopher Vo, Erica Wong, XiaoChuan Xie, Timothy Yang, Kelli Youngman, Minami Yusui.
When this production from director Bartlett Sher opened last year, it was more or less the floor for what you can and should expect from a first-rate professional mounting of this 1951 Richard RodgersOscar Hammerstein II musical: competent in most areas, except for the leads, who couldn't quite muster even that rating. Kelli O'Hara, lovely and a wonderful singer, was woefully underpowered and undercharismatic as Welsh schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, and Ken Watanabe's performance as the Siamese ruler with whom she tilts was hampered by his incredibly poor English. (When the words are supplied by Hammerstein, Broadway's most astute-ever lyricist and a cunning librettist, that's an elephant-sized problem.)
But in replacing them, Mazzie and Kim have given the show what it needs most, where it's most needed, and as a result everything else now just seems to click. It doesn't mean this is the best revival of The King and I you're ever likely to seeif you're a serious theatregoer, it almost certainly isn'tbut it now lands with something much closer to the spirited, sensual force it requires.
Most of this can be traced to Mazzie. She isn't just playing Anna like a woman rather than a girl, but, more critically, as a woman who, as defined by more equality-minded upbringing, genuinely sees herself as the equal of a man who's considered by himself, his family, and his subjects, the most powerful in the world. She's insistent but not unrealistic, a velvet-lined steamroller. You can practically her fires stoking early on when her promise of a private house is denied (ignored?), and Mazzie is careful to show how each new interaction with the king shovels additional coal into her emotional boiler.
So hot do her tempers run, in fact, that it affects, if ever so slightly, her relationship with the court wives and the children she's been hired to instruct. An early joke comments on how the early months of Anna's tenure are riddled with lessons about houses and home, and that's utterly believable in Mazzie's portrayal: She's always fighting herself to do the right thing for everyone else while also sating her own appetite for the proper justice she perceives. One upshot of this is that it supercharges Anna's big, angry first-act musical monologue, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"; in no mounting of The King and I that I've ever seen has that song been more integrated, and more essential, to explaining who Anna is and what the battles she's waging really mean.
Another side-effect is, if anything, even more profound. It puts Anna and the King on equal footing, and you're forced to view them both as exactly the same person, trying to convince someone with an incompatible worldview that their way isn't just correct, but the only sensible option. This is something else that, until now, has never come through as powerfully for me, and makes the jousting first-act finale in which the two match each other wit for wit and (literally) head for head a marvelous culmination a fascinating, fully realized ideaand its later consummation, in "Shall We Dance?", more exciting and suspenseful than it's usually able to be.
This is not to say that Mazzie's performance is one-note; she's appropriately pensive, too, in Anna's signature ballad, "Hello, Young Lovers," and playfully motherlike in "Getting to Know You." But these qualities derive from the same soul as Anna's combativeness, and are colored (at least early on) by her dissatisfaction, so they don't stick out, and they don't move in a disconnected fashion. Perhaps these softer moments could be slightly richer and warmer, to bolster Anna's love for the children and the eventual choices she makes in their behalf (which are a mite shaky), but given how much of what Mazzie does unconditionally works, I'm not going to complain too much.
Nor is there much reason to bicker about Kim. He's not armed with an ideally booming and authoritative voice or well-carved singing chops, but he strikes a fine balance between a man torn between centuries of tradition and a world that's poised to leave him behind. One of the most joyous parts of the King as written is how, among his own people, he's an elder god, but he becomes boylike around Anna; Kim captures this, but does so with a restraint that suggests his King is forever aware he's being watched and emulated, and thus keeps much of his deepest enthusiasm in check.
This further serves to level the playing field with Anna, and better articulate why the King is ripped apart by his own choices in the final scenes: So interwoven is he with not just his own ideals but those of the West, they can't be separated without killing him. You still get the usual sense that the King is being destroyed by his internal conflict, but by letting you see the specific tactics the King deploys, Kim details why that happens more precisely than most actors are able to do. It's rich, rewarding work that could not be better mated with Mazzie's.
As excellent as Mazzie and Kim are, however, the rest of the production has not advanced to meet them. The damaging changes to the script and score have remained in place; the overture is still terrible and shredded, and the King's vital establishing number, "A Puzzlement" is still cleaved in half for no discernible reason (I'd hung onto some hope it had been cut to accommodate Watanabe and would be restored for someone who can handle its language, but no). Sher still needs to be less afraid of the show's more expansive, presentational aspects, and stop trying to make everything sensible by suffocation. (Though this is one of his calling cards, as, among others, the current Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof proves.) And though the costumes (Catherine Zuber) and lights (Donald Holder) are excellent, Michael Yeargan's bland, too-open-yet-too-restrictive sets still feel wrong.
The supporting actors, too, have not changed much: They include Ruthie Ann Miles as a bizarrely sedate Lady Thiang and Conrad Ricamora as an overly neurotic Lun Tha. Ashley Park, a former highlight as Tuptim, Lun Tha's lover and the young woman who goes even further than Anna to illustrate the King's antiquated mindset, has lost much of her original verve and now lives mostly on the role's surface. Jon Viktor Corpuz, as the heir to the throne, Prince Chulalongkorn, remains a standout: severe but supple, smart and cagey.
For The King and I to be perfect, all its pieces must be in sync. If they're far from that here, Mazzie and Kim have demonstrated why it's so important to get the title characters right: When the central story is told well, it's easier to forgive other missteps because you're still getting from the show what you most need. Does it matter that the rest of the production isn't great? Yes, but when Mazzie and Kim are at the forefront of the action, you won't be thinking about what's wrong. You'll just be thinking how they and the show, in these circumstances, are as right as they could possibly be.