NEW YORK – One of the greatest of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical plays, “The King and I,” is getting a magnificent large-scale revival on Lincoln Center Theater’s Vivian Beaumont stage with a huge cast of 51 actors, and starring Kelli O’Hara. She plays the English widow, Anna Leonowens, a teacher who in 1862 is hired by an obscure Oriental potentate, played by the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, to educate him and his royal children about the new Western ideas that were starting to infiltrate his country’s mores.
Here and there, if you care to quibble, certain aspects of the story are melodramatic. But for the most part, “The King and I” still emerges as a revealing tale of a small part of the 19th-century world as it tries to see its place in a much larger spectrum. Ms. O’Hara won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical and the show earned one for Best Revival of a Musical.
Ms. O’Hara brings a sense of truth and mischief to the role of Anna, and her flawless voice suits the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs perfectly. As the King, this is Mr. Watanabe’s first appearance on the American stage, though he has been in countless Hollywood films like “The Last Samurai.”
In previews, he was said to have some problems with the King’s Siamese/English, but by the time I saw him, he was a first-rate actor in a great role.
In the dramatic sense, the King is the richest character in the play. Tough and truculent with an appetite for truth and fear of ridicule, he is not easy to cope with. Nor to play. Mr. Watanabe acts him honestly, scorning the temptations to be cute. He sings well when the King is required to sing of “A Puzzlement” about what is going on with his country. He dances hilariously in “Shall We Dance?” which Anna begins as a graceful waltz and he buoyantly turns into a show-stopping polka.
Ms. O’Hara and Mr. Watanabe are not the lone stars on the stage. The production has an admirable Lady Thiang in Ruthie Ann Miles, another Tony-winner in the show, who impressed me off-Broadway in “Here Lies Love.” Here she is kindly, strong and understanding, and she has a glorious voice to sing one of the greatest of all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, “Something Wonderful,” which is written in an operatic range.
Ashley Park is the Burmese princess Tuptim. Nobody can make much sense of the love story between Tuptim and Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora), which is awash with melodrama like something from another show. But Ms. Parks sings nicely songs like “We Kiss in the Shadow,” and “I Have Dreamed” with Lun Tha.
Ms. Park has her pleasantest moments when Tuptim presides over the most imaginative and charming of all comic ballets, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” It fills the large stage with a Siamese version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It was created 64 years ago by Jerome Robbins, who choreographed “The King and I,” and today its brilliance, freshness, simplicity, wit and melody and Mr. Robbins’s genius still are there.
Early in Act One, there is the magnificent “March of the Siamese Children,” a pantomime to one of the most beautiful and dramatically moving melodies Richard Rodgers has ever written. And we get to see a huge parade of the King’s children, all made “individual” by Bartlett Sher’s guidance and staging, which make their entrances charming and delightful.
As the director of this current undertaking, Mr. Sher presents the piece with an all-Asian cast, something that couldn’t have been done when “The King and I” was first presented on Broadway in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner.
The original Anna Leonowens wrote her 1860’s memoir, “The English Governess at the Siamese Court,” which was the inspiration for the 1946 motion picture “Anna and the King of Siam” with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. But most theater histories credit Margaret Landon’s novel Anna and the King of Siam as the source of the musical “The King and I.” Mr. Brynner reprised the role in the film with Deborah Kerr, and twice returned to Broadway in revivals in 1977 and 1985.
The original Robert Russell Bennett orchestrations are played by a full pit of 29 musicians, which only a nonprofit entity like Lincoln Center could afford to execute. The gorgeous royal palace settings are by Michael Yeargan, and the lavish costumes by Catherine Zuber won her a Tony, as well. The show is scheduled to run until January 2016.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.