The King and I – LCT in London

 

 

by Carol Rocamora

 

From the very first moment when that boat sails into the harbor and onto the stage, we’re enveloped in the warm, wonderful embrace of an immortal Rodgers & Hammerstein classic.  That was the magic then when The King and I opened at Lincoln Center in the 2015 revival, and that’s the magic now, shimmering on our screens through BroadwayHD.

We all admired Bartlett Sher’s majestic production of The King & I in LCT’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre.  Kelli O’Hara received bouquets of raves as Anna, the widowed Welsh schoolteacher who journeys to Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s to tutor the many children of the ruling, polygamous monarch.  Sher’s masterful direction, Michael Yeargen’s Met-Opera-scale set, Donald Holder’s lavish lightning and Christopher Gattelli’s marvelous choreography received huge praise, as well.

So what more can be said of this monumental, landmark revival, now live-streaming on Broadway HD?   Watching it on-line without the sweeping impact of Sher’s production in the majestic Vivian Beaumont, I was actually surprised to find myself focusing on the historical context of the play, more than ever before.

 

For example, the fact (mentioned in the script) that the Siamese King was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln and Queen Victoria passed by almost unnoticed (at least to me), lost in the sheer spectacle of the dazzling live production.  (Did you catch it?)  I must say it has quite an impact this time around.  Hearing it today, in our own momentous times, it gives the character of the King more gravitas. Indeed, I actually found myself having more empathy for the King’s quandary. It was truly “a puzzlement,” as his song goes, how to rule a country ridiculed for being “backwards and barbarian” by the condescending West.   Clearly, he’s a ruler under tremendous pressure to begin a process of modernization that would doubtless be a long, disruptive, and momentous one – a process for which he secretly feels unequipped and afraid.

At the same time, I found myself less tolerant of the King’s male supremacy, portrayed almost to the point of caricature (did he really have that many wives, bearing 77 children?)  Seen through a 2020 lens, his male-chauvinist attitude towards the many women surrounding him – especially Anna – is less amusing and indeed almost irritating (very much like Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, another chauvinist whose behavior Bartlett Sher had to grapple with in his LCT production).  Today, Anna’s retort to the King’s imperious attitudes – “I’m your employee – not your servant!” – seems insufficient.

 

However, Ken Watanabe more than compensates for his character’s attitudes with his touching, vulnerable performance.  This imposing actor adds a significant, humanizing dimension to the role – that of profound insecurity and self-doubt, under all that over-the-top bravado and bluster.  These aspects are especially revealed as he falls under the influence of Anna, who tries to tutor him in Western ways and bolster his confidence when the British delegation arrives, to consider taking over Siam as a protectorate.   And of course the King’s ways are put to the supreme, dramatic test when the he tries to whip the rebellious Tuptim (his future new wife, played movingly by Ashley Park) against Anna’s fierce objections.

 

In the end, these dated historical aspects of The King and I fade, overpowered by the glorious score, soaring through our computer screens today.  Who doesn’t smile (even on-line), hearing “Getting to Know You,” as Anna tutors her pupils?  Whose eyes don’t tear, listening to “Hello, Young Lovers,” as Anna remembers her late husband and their young love.  Who doesn’t swoon to “Shall We Dance?” as Anna and the King realize their powerful, mutual attraction?  All the afore-mentioned songs are offered by Kelli O’Hara, whose beautiful, liquid-gold soprano voice is a gift from the gods – straight to us.  Many of us grew up hearing about Gertrude Lawrence’s legendary performance from our parents – and now our grandchildren will hear about Kelli O’Hara’s unforgettable Anna from us.

Yes, as the song goes, this King and I is still “something wonderful,” indeed.

 

The King and I, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, directed by Bartlett Sher, Lincoln Center production videotaped at the London Palladium (2018), live-streaming on Broadway HD.

 

 

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