The King and I, Lincoln Center
by Nancy Salz, May, 2015
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Music Direction by Ted Sperling
Choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on the original choreography of Jerome Robbins
Sets by Michael Yeargan
Costumes by Catherine Zuber
Kelli O’Hara, Ken Watanabe, Ruthie Ann Miles, Ashley Park, Conrad Ricamora, Jon Victor Corpuz, Edward Baker-Duly, Murphy Guyer, Jake Lucas, Paul Nakauchi, Marc Oka
“The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet principal dancers: Xiaochuan Xie, Lamae Caparas, Cole Horibe, Sumie Maeda, Christopher Vo, Michiko Takemasa
Is a puzzlement – why Barlett Sher and Michael Yeargan, the Tony award winning director and set designer of South Pacific, respectively, would create such a sparse scenic design for The King and I. The stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre is over 3,500 square feet – and much of the time (in the palace and in the forest) all we see on the large portion that thrusts out into the audience is a black floor with a lonely actor or two singing upon it.
Too often the feeling in the theatre is of a costumed performer giving a concert. This places a huge burden on the actors to project their characters and draw us into the story. That’s fine, if the actors are extremely talented. In this production of The King and I, most are. One, in the critical role of the King, isn’t. He brings down the emotional quality of the entire production.
The King and I, with a gorgeous score by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was first produced on Broadway in 1951. The story is about Anna Leonowens (Kelli O’Hara), an Englishwoman who has been hired by the King of Siam (Ken Watanable) to teach his many wives and children to become modern people. He has promised Anna a salary. For Anna and her son (Jake Lucas) he has promised a home separate from the palace, which becomes a bone of contention between the two characters as does the King’s treatment of his subjects and his treatment of a young woman, Tuptim (Asley Park), who was given to him as a gift. The King’s first wife, Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles) urges Anna to have compassion for him. We soon learn that Tuptim is in love with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora). When she tries to run away with him, she is captured. When the King attempts to whip her in front of of Anna, he finds that he cannot. It is the beginning of his downfall.
Kelli O’Hara is dignified, strong and charming as Anna. Her voice is as alluring as her stature. Even alone on a mostly empty stage her performance of “Hello Young Lovers” transports us. Ruthie Ann Miles’s rendition of “Something Wonderful,” the song that implores Anna to understand the King, is powerful and touching. Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora as the doomed lovers are also excellent.
Ken Watanabe as the King is a major mistake. He lacks the inner commanding strength befitting a ruler. We don’t believe him—especially when he sings “A Puzzlement” on a virtually empty stage. No amount of scowling, stomping or screaming – which makes the actor’s English incomprehensible—can convince us of his majesty. His teenage son, Prince Chulalongkorn, played by Jon Viktor Corpuz, has us believe his own princely strength with his first words. His fine acting makes Mr. Wantanabe’s flaws stand out even more. We feel little empathy for the King and virtually no sexual chemistry between the King and Anna. What a shame.
There are joyous scenes in The King and I: The march of Siamese Children in Act I; the famous and magnificent “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet (using much of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography) with beautiful scenery in Act II; and watching the King and Anna polka across the enormous stage to “Shall We Dance.” At last a use for the virtually empty space!
The large, 26 piece orchestra is under the direction of the wonderful Ted Sperling.
Suggestive or sparse scenery can work brilliantly. Think of the New York Philharmonic’s concert production of Sweeney Todd. But in this production of The King and I, it feels stingy. It highlights the flaws of a key performer and brings down the entire production.
Act II is superior to Act I, and all in all, The King and I at the Vivian Beaumont is an enjoyable evening in the theatre. But it is not nearly as good as it should have been.