|L-R: Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in THE KING AND I|
In 2008, Kelli O’Hara garnered well-deserved Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her phenomenal performance as Nellie Forbush in Lincoln Center Theater’s wonderful revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Now we’re about to find out if lightning, indeed, can strike twice. Lincoln Center Theater has just launched its revival of The King and I, another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre with Ms O’Hara again appearing in the starring role – this time as Anna Leonowens, a strong-willed English school teacher who contracts to travel to Siam to teach the children of the King (Ken Watanabe) and who ends up getting much more than she bargained for (as does the King). And, as it turns out, lightning does strike twice: she is just as terrific in the role of Anna as she was as Nellie Forbush and this revival of The King and I is just as good as was the LCT”s justifiably acclaimed revival of South Pacific seven years ago.
But it is not just Ms O’Hara that makes this revival such a roaring success: this is simply a superlative production on virtually all counts. Michael Yeargan’s set design is astounding from the opening scene in which Anna’s ship virtually sails directly into the midst of the audience to the sumptuous scenes of the King’s splendid palace. The director and the cast have made very good use of much more of the theater than just the stage, with dramatic entrances and exits effected from several aisles. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is truly amazing - a spectacular blend of Eastern and Western movement. And Catherine Zuber’s costume designs are smart and richly evocative.
But the most important factor in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is, of course, the music and here this revival benefits especially form the magnificent voices not only of Ms O’Hara but also of Ruthie Ann Miles (who plays the part of Lady Thiang, the King’s Number One wife, to absolute perfection), and Ashley Park (cast as Tuptim, the young girl presented to the King as a “gift” from the King of Burma whose voice is absolutely thrilling. The large supporting cast is positively first rate – especially the many children of the King whose insouciance adds a delightful spice to the mix.
Indeed, my only misgiving about the casting of this show related, ironically, to the King, himself. Unquestionably, Mr. Watanabe is an accomplished actor with an impressive resume, including Japanese theater credits for his performances in Hamlet, The Lion in Winter, Dialogue with Horowitz, and The Royal Hunt of the Sun, as well as credits for his roles in several films including The Last Samurai (for which he received Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations). This production of The King and I, however, marks his debut on the American stage and it is unfortunately wanting. While he succeeds in displaying his formidable acting skills in his conflicted role as the absolute ruler of a nation aspiring to transition from barbarism to a place among the nations of the civilized world while retaining its cultural values, neither his articulation nor his singing voice were on a par with those of the show’s three female principals (admittedly a very high bar). But notwithstanding my disappointment over that one shortcoming, this production has so much else going for it that it truly deserves inclusion in any list of Lincoln Center’s many superb revivals of classic musicals.