Under the tutelage of the usually perfect Bartlett Sher this revival is a really big production with one really big problem. There is a big orchestra (29). A big cast (51) on a big stage. Big hoop skirts (Catherine Zuber). A big Buddha. Big sets (Michael Yeargan) including the arrival of a very big boat that threatens not to stop in time bringing the British widow and future schoolmarm to the children of the King of Siam Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara) and her young son Louis (Jake Lucas).
It is apparent that the budget is also big. No expense has been spared. THE KING AND I is a really big production that would all but be impossible were it not for Lincoln Center Theater.
So now, the big question. Why cast someone who obviously has a problem with the spoken English language as the King of Siam? A man who can be heard but not understood most of the time. A man bellowing phonetic sounds. Not clear words. Garbled sentences. It’s a puzzlement.
I am afraid that this all but ruined the show for me. Straining to understand I finally gave in and zoned out. To boot there is next to zero electricity between the King and Kelli O’Hara who gives a fine performance with her beautiful presence and exceptional vocals.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II tackled successfully some mighty big themes in musicalizing the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon in 1951 that are still pertinent today. Polygamy. Misogyny. And the demeaning of anyone thought to be one’s inferior.
Mr. Hammerstein wrote a magnificent libretto that is wise and touching and brave and lyrics that develop character and move the complex plot forward with ease. Mr. Rodgers matched every word with gorgeous, romantic melodies that linger on to this date and rightfully made them a fortune.
It’s a clash of cultures. He wanting not to budge an inch. And she desiring to educate. Especially the women – not to bow down to their Lord and Master. To challenge authority. Two people equally matched fighting for what they each believe in. Too bad we only get half of the battle most of the time.
The supporting players are wonderful. Especially Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang – the King’s head wife. All his children (it’s a big family with many wives) are introduced in a delightful manner – they each have their own individual personalities as they are presented in “The March of the Siamese Children” that is quite refreshing. As the heir to the throne Jon Viktor Corpuz finally comes into his own at play’s end.
As the young, secret lovers Tuptim – a “gift” to the King of Siam from the King of Burma (Ashley Park) and Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora) bring romance and passion to their famous duets. When Anna gives Tuptim a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” the plot takes off culminating in the famous ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins and tweaked by Christopher Gattelli – “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” – the highlight of the production due to the charismatic dancing of Xiaochuan Xie as Eliza speaking nary a word.
Respectfully, I only wish that Ken Watanabe, said King, would make more of an effort to be understood. Why spoil an otherwise perfectly wonderful production? It’s a huge puzzlement.
At the Vivian Beaumont. Open run.
Photos: Paul Kolnik
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