Monday, April 20, 2015

Something Truly Wonderful

Review: The King and I

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O'Hara are exquisitely matched in Bartlett Sher's knockout revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.

There's no such thing as perfection, especially in a subjective artistic medium like the theatre. That said, Lincoln Center's ravishing, radiant, and visually stunning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I is so close to an ideal evening at the theatre that for all intents and purposes it is exactly that. Perhaps even more than the non-profit's critically lauded South Pacific several seasons back, this revival removes all artifice, pretention, and preexisting baggage from a well worn show and reveals it anew as an emotionally complex, culturally relevant and deeply moving piece of musical writing from one of the greatest creative teams to ever live.

Following the pitch perfect overture (played by a 29 piece orchestra under the baton of Ted Sperling), we are whisked away to the beautifully exotic kingdom of Siam circa 1862. On the prow of an incoming ship we meet British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (a luminous Kelli O'Hara), who has come to this faraway land with her son to educate the King of Siam's many children and wives in the ways of the West. The imposing and often temperamental King (a gleeful Ken Watanabe, in his Broadway debut) has more than a few clashes with the strong-willed Misses Anna as the show turns an intelligent and quizzical eye towards issues of imperialism, gender politics, and the qualifications of a good ruler. There are multiple subplots to round out the evening, but the central relationship of Anna and the King is the musical's primary concern, and it is one of the most richly textured and nuanced in the entire musical theatre cannon.

Despite the show's age, nothing about director Barlett Sher's superlative staging feels dusty or antiquated; indeed, many of Hammerstein's observations about gender politics and race relations remain relevant even today. Sher unearths the many layers in both the book scenes and the songs in such a way that everything feels necessary, and every line, lyric, and piece of incidental musical adds to our overall understanding of the characters and the plot. Unlike many productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's work, there is nothing precious or twee about this revival, which treats the work with the same seriousness as a great drama without shying away from the piece's inherent humor and charm. And moreso than almost any other director working today, Sher knows how to make excellent use of the cavernous Vivian Beaumont Theatre's thrust stage, creating a neverending series of beautiful stage pictures that seamlessly ensure a good view of the action no matter where you're sitting (Christopher Gattelli's choreography is equally entrancing).

Once again, Sher guides his frequent collaborator Kelli O'Hara to a performance of startling depth and emotional honesty. Rodgers and Hammerstein's score doesn't allow O'Hara to show the full range of her gorgeous soprano, but that doesn't prevent her from sounding absolutely stunning on the score's many standards. When she wraps her golden tones around "Getting to Know You," it's every bit as warm and inviting as you'd hope, and her rendition of "Hello, Young Lovers" is positively captivating. But it's not just O'Hara's nearly unequalled vocal technique that makes her a joy to watch; her thoughtful, textured delivery of the lyrics makes these much sung songs sound like entirely new, spur of the moment thoughts (a quality best showcased during her superlative "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" towards the end of the first act). O'Hara makes you believe every syllable of what she's saying, and she imbues every gesture with a multitude of meaning in yet another stellar addition to her ever growing resume.

Her performance is matched every step of the way by an incredibly affecting and genuinely exciting star turn from Ken Watanabe as the King. Watanabe doesn't completely throw out the template created by Tony-winner Yul Brynner, but by the end of the show he has created a take on the commanding monarch that is wholly his own and just as effective. His King exhibits a palpable joy when learning more about his charge and her culture, and both the actor and the character clearly relish their frequent, playful sparring with O'Hara's Anna. Yet the immensely likable Watanabe is also capable of producing an intense anger that strikes fear in his subjects' hearts, a juxtaposition that explains why most of the characters seem both terrified and fiercely protective of their King. Most importantly, Watanabe has excellent chemistry with O'Hara, which pays off in spades during their exhilarating "Shall We Dance?"

The supporting cast is just as capable as the leads, often while being given decidedly less to work with. Ruthie Ann Miles is superb as the King's primary wife Lady Thiang, showing exquisite depth and nuance as she regally slinks across the stage and turning "Something Wonderful" into a legitimate showstopper. As the impetuous Tuptim, a young girl given to the King as a gift despite longing for another, Ashley Park displays beautiful vocal control during her soaring ballads and also grounds the particularly harrowing confrontation between herself and the King during the show's climax. Jake Lucas brings surprising honesty to his performance as Anna's son Louis, and shares a particularly lovely duet with Jon Viktor Corpuz's Prince Chulalongkorn, the King's eldest son and heir.

For the physical production, Lincoln Center and the show's design team have pulled out all the stops, creating one of the most unabashedly gorgeous musicals of the past decade. Michael Yeargan's gasp-inducing set is a continual delight, its rich color palette and thoughtfully detailed scenic units combining to create a world that is at once mystifying and intoxicating. Catherine Zuber's costumes are a show unto themselves, resplendent jewel toned creations that celebrate the musical's Asian setting without feeling tacky or disrespectful. There is a beautiful movement to all of her pieces, but most especially the showstopping dress O'Hara dons during the famous "Shall We Dance" waltz; watching the iridescent purple gown twirl about the massive stage is one of the most stunning and memorable images of the season. And everything is beautifully lit by Donald Holder in bold colors and patterns that make the already expansive set appear even larger than it actually is.

The King and I is must see theatre, the kind of event show that only comes along once in a great while. Everything about this revival sparkles, from Sher's direction to the uniformly fantastic performances to the absolutely breathtaking production design. It is difficult to imagine a more accomplished production of this oft-produced show, and this version is sure to stay with you long after the final ultimo emanates from the Beaumont's orchestra pit. It is something wonderful indeed.

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