Review by Michael Bracken


A swelling overture followed by a magnificent boat floating toward the audience on an otherwise bare stage. So begins Bartlett Sher’s stirring production of The King and I at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Visually stunning, it mostly takes place on a wooden platform thrust out above the orchestra. Set designer Michael Yeargan blends simplicity with grandeur; the stage is unadorned except for occasional furniture and larger pieces like the boat and a towering gold Thai Buddha in lotus position that dominates much of Act II.

Costume designer Catherine Zuber provides a striking array of period–perfect (1860’s) dresses with hoop skirts for the marvelous Kelli O’Hara as Anna Leonowens, the widowed British schoolteacher retained by the King of Siam to teach his many children English. But it’s Zuber’s lusciously hued sheaths for the king’s wives, robes for his children, and assorted attire for the King and the rest of the court that leave you breathless. Deep reds and rich purples are accented by gold; pinks and blues contrast with cream that was never creamier.

In short, the visuals are gorgeous, as, of course, is the enchanting Rodgers & Hammerstein score. One lilting number follows another, including classics like “Hello Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance?” Ms. O’Hara’s voice is as effortlessly angelic as ever, but what’s especially impressive is how she glides from speech to song and back again, with no apparent differentiation between the two forms of communication. Songs don’t begin; they just suddenly are.

Her characterization of Anna is right on target. A single parent in an intimidating new home, she acts brave so she’ll be brave, as she confides in “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” She stands up to the King (Ken Watanabe), who has reneged on his promise of housing her outside the palace, without compromising firmness or civility. Despite their domestic differences, he seeks – and receives – Anna’s advice on how to handle the British, who he fears will try to assimilate Siam into the British Empire. Her counsel – show them you’re not barbarian – proves sage. His kingdom stays his kingdom.

Mr. Watanabe makes an excellent King, less of a buffoon than Yul Brenner in the 1956 movie but still possessing a note of comic bluster. He’s got the bravado, but she has the brains. West trumps East. No wonder the film is banned in Thailand.

A major subplot involves Tuptim (Ashley Park), a beautiful young girl given to the King by the King of Burma. Alas, she’s in love with the man who brought her to Siam, Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora). When they can, they indulge in dangerous secret rendezvous, as they sing the haunting duet, “We Kiss in a Shadow.”

Ruthie Ann Miles plays Lady Thiang, the King’s primary wife and mother to the crown prince. Her voice delicately soars as she sings her husband’s praises in “Something Wonderful.” The King’s children are a delight; cute would be putting it mildly. Presented to Anna in a procession of individual walk-ons, they bow, hold her hands, and run under their father’s legs or out of the room, depending upon their age and attitude.

In the second act, to impress the British dignitaries, Tuptim narrates a specially created story ballet, The Small House of Uncle Thomas, while Xiaochuan Xie as Eliza, Lamae Caparas as Uncle Thomas, Christopher Vo as Simon of Legree, and Michiko Takemasa as Little Eva interpret, in dance, a skewed but charming variation of the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic.

Ms. Xie as Eliza is both touching and oddly graceful as she hops across the stage, desperately fleeing Legree, with one foot supporting her and the other flexed behind her at the end of a bent leg. Christopher Gatttelli’s choreography, here and elsewhere in the show, is inspired, elegantly filled with angled arms and twisted torsos.

Hats off to Mr. Sher for his majestic orchestration of a panoply of moving parts, each a masterpiece in its own right.

Open-ended run at Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont (150 West 65th Street). 3 hours.

Photos: Paul Kolnick