The King and I
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
3 April 2015
Interval at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The rather grand Upper East Side Matriarch behind me opines that “She is good, but it is such a dreadful piece of theatre.” Her male companion nods sagely. “Yes, it's imperialist nonsense. I have spent a lot of time in Thailand and they are nothing like this”. Tempted as I was to inquire whether or not his experience extended to visits during the reign of Queen Victoria, silence seemed preferable.
The King and I has never struck me as a piece of imperialist propaganda. Rather, it seemed to be about a simple enough concept: that people from different backgrounds and beliefs can work together, learn from each other, even love each other. It's a piece about tolerance, understanding and acceptance. Human dignity facing off against inhuman power. It might have an exotic period setting, and no doubt productions could choose to patronise the Siamese characters and Siam itself, but that never struck me as the intention of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It's the kind of show I expect its creators would have liked the Governor of Indiana to see and have a long think about.
Bartlett Sher appears to agree. In an interview about his approach in directing The King and I, he said:
“So my entrance point came from the journalist Nicholas Kristoffer, who writes a lot about the problem of transitioning from traditional to contemporary modern culture in the Islamic world and developing countries. This transition to modernity is exactly what Rodgers and Hammerstein were addressing in the original piece, and that is what resonates most fully today…So in 1862, when Anna Leonowens…gives Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to a young woman who is involuntarily given to the King as a present and forced to join this royal household of many wives under the rule of a King, it is an experience of freedom that is really complex. That same problem resonated in 1950, and it resonates now and sheds light on the immediate significance of The King And I today.”
Together with set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, Sher has completely reimagined and reinvigorated Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical both for the vast space that is the Vivian Beaumont stage and for the 21st century. Now in previews, the production is a triumph in every respect: gorgeous to look at, immaculate to listen to and something insightful to experience.
There is no attempt to modernise the story, relocate it, either in time or place, or to replicate the way it has been sumptuously produced in the past. There are no giant Elephants, no ostentatious settings or backgrounds, no lavish expense in the environs of the King's palace. Rather, there is a sense of a cool, important temple, wide open spaces where fabric can hang or blossoms descend, where huge pillars establish the height of the space, press the notion of power evident in height. Even the statue of Buddha, when it eventually appears, is plain rather than ornate.
This is not a production about the place where events occur; its about the people in the events.
It does not, of course, follow that the set is not full of wonder: it is. The huge depth of the stage is fully worked, there is a moveable thrust which propels various bits of action forward. When Captain Orton's ship pulls into Bangkok, the huge prow of the ship comes directly into the auditorium in a quite breath-taking way. When Tuptim and Lun Tha meet secretly, the stage is awash with romantic colours and hanging, flowery garlands that suggest a type of paradise. The various scenes are deftly and smartly established with pieces of period furniture: the school room, Anna's bedroom, The King's study, the elaborately laid dinner table when Sir Edward Ramsey arrives.
The costumes are superb. Anna's gowns are all wonderful, the hooped skirts and prim Victorian bodices precisely right, in gorgeous plain colours or combinations of plain and striped fabric. Her gown for the Ramsay ball is extraordinary, a miracle of exquisite tailoring – and when Anna swirls the enormous hooped skirt there are waves of fabric tossing in the breeze of the Polka. The King's outfits are suitably regal, lots of reds and gold, and the wives, especially Lady Thiang, have interesting, more traditional Thai costumes: blue, silver, white and red. Tuptim and Lun Tha, being from Burma, are dressed differently, but no less enchantingly. The costumes feel fresh and newly minted, but are clearly celebratory of the 19th century.
There are many surprises for those who know the film or musical well: the sense of the clutter and mayhem at the bustling Bangkok Harbour is brilliantly conveyed and the Kralahome's immense power is established by his retinue silencing the crowd with rattling sticks that strike fear; Tuptim is treated like a sexual sacrifice rather than an exotic princess and the King's inspection of her is skin-crawling; Chulalongkorn is proud and arrogant at first, slowly thawing over time; Lady Thiang is young and politically minded; Tuptim's ballet is played directly in front of the King, for him, not for anyone else, even though others are watching; Western People Funny is included and not played for obvious laughs; rather, it incisively demonstrates the difficulty the reigning culture has with Western intervention and innovation.
But Sher's real triumphs come in the playing of the two key characters, Anna and the King.
Those who come seeking a reprisal of the Yul Brynner approach to the part will be sorely disappointed. Ken Watanabe, wisely, approaches the part entirely differently, slyer, more deviously manipulative and, yet, with a great sense of fun. It is not clear whether this is deliberate or not, but Watanabe's English pronunciation is challenging at times, which cleverly and instantly establishes the gulf between him and the woman he has hired to teach his children. You must pay careful attention to him to get what he says often and so you feel just as Anna would have felt.
Watanabe has great presence and the sense of regal self-importance is easily established. But so too is the nimble mind and political acumen of the King: this is no pushover or pretend wielder of power. Watanabe's King is dangerous, unpredictable, and this comes out both in the way he moves physically and the way he phrases the text. It will not impress everyone, certainly not those who think Brunner's way was the “right” way, but it is a vivid and virile reading of a role very difficult to play seriously. He is no singer, but it doesn't matter. He sells the material convincingly and when he erupts, it is powerful indeed.
As Anna, Kelli O'Hara is incomparable. Perfectly English in every way, with delicious cut-glass vowels, she is quintessentially Victorian, even to the extent that she never really shouts. She might get passionate, but she is never loud in a vulgar sense; the well of propriety runs deep in her. O'Hara captures the style perfectly, without ever sending it up or trying to be “now”: her soft, determined, but inherently feminine approach is intoxicating.
Few people have the ability to seamlessly shift from speaking dialogue to singing, but O'Hara is in the Olympic class in that respect. She makes the songs an essential fabric of the story. Her voice is radiant and pure; vocally she is resplendent in every way, whether it is the soft charm of Whistle A Happy Tune or the lush languid legato of Hello Young Lovers. Especially impressive is how she masters Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You? – making it an internal dialogue of repressed fury rather than a shoe hurling belter. Her Getting To Know You is so delightful it is as though you are hearing it for the very first time.
Of course, the showpiece moment comes with Shall We Dance, and both Watanabe and O'Hara approach the number in an off-hand, conversational way, which is frisky and thrilling. O'Hara's gentle touch is superb and bounces nicely off Watanabe's childish man-tantrum about wanting to do what the Englishmen did. The routine as the King learns the steps is genuinely funny and so you are unprepared for the moment when he presses Anna slightly too close to his face before launching into the polka proper. It's not so much steamy as volcanic, but then it swirls into a huge skirt-billowing dancing joy and the excited audience go appropriately wild. This the the real moment East meets West.
Ruthie Ann Miles makes Lady Thiang a real character, not just a spokesperson for the wives. She moves with the grace of a panther and her scene with Tuptim demonstrates her palace power. She stopped the show with her superb rendition of Something Wonderful, marvellously heartfelt as well as richly and resonantly sung. Paul Nakauchi makes a splendid Kralahome, all bare-chested-warrior-tradition angst.
As the lovers with the two greatest love songs Rodgers ever wrote, I Have Dreamed and We Kiss In The Shadows, Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora are perfectly suited, both very attractive, with marvellous voices that blend into gorgeous harmonies and deliver entirely the glory of Rodger's melodies. The sense of their devotion and commitment to each other is real and intense. Park is also splendid in Small House Of Uncle Thomas, and the fear and bravery she displays is acute and deeply felt.
All of the King's children are wonderful, completely engaging and individual, and the March of The Siamese Children features some changes from the original choreography which are refreshing and genuinely joyful. Jon Viktor Corpuz is outstandingly good as the aloof tyrant in the making, Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, and the byplay between he and O'Hara as she gets him to trust her and consider different perspectives is beautiful to observe. His final scenes delight, as the changes wrought by his father's acceptance for the need for change and Anna's persuasive pleas for human dignity to be the guiding principle, confuse and then inspire him in a totally comprehensible way.
Corpuz also plays well against Jake Lucas' Louis and the two clearly establish the friendly rivalry between them. Lucas is marvellous in the moment when he forces his mother to admit that she “likes” the King.
The final, difficult showdown between Anna and the King is very well handled, and sees O'Hara at her most magnificent, forcing herself between the King and Tuptim, whom he wants to whip. Her determined grace and defiance is marvellous to behold, perfectly Victorian and perfectly poised. The effect it has on Watanabe's King is devastating as he realises he cannot educate his family, refute the perception of himself as a barbarian, and keep to the naked power of his kingship. Something has to snap.
Gattelli's choreography throughout is unobtrusive and authentic; it augments or adapts much of Jerome Robbins' original work, especially in Small House Of Uncle Thomas, which is terrific in every respect. There is no sense of playing at dancing in the Siamese way though; the steps, the hand and feet movements, all feel instinctively appropriate and truthful.
The 29 piece orchestra (pure bliss!) plays superbly under the calm and sensible eye and baton of Ted Sperling. Every song is played at the correct tempi and the balance between weighty orchestra and vocal line is assiduously maintained. The strings soar and underpin the genteel aspects of the luxurious score. For the most part, you feel as though you are listening to a recording, so perfect is both the quality of the orchestral sound, it's colours and eccentricities, and the pure, unwavering vocal lines.
The ensemble excel in every way and the dancing in Small House Of Uncle Thomas is quite exquisite. The female chorus are wonderfully wry in Western People Funny.
The King and I is a masterpiece, one of the supreme examples of the form. Rodgers and Hammerstein were ahead of their time and on top of their game with this musical. It has much to say about equality of all kinds, acceptance and understanding in the face of fundamentally different points of view. It works as an exotic, colourful and memorable parable about essential and fundamentally critical themes of our time – treating those of other religions, race, gender and sexuality with equanimity. That it has a sensational and moving score is the emotional icing on the cake.
This is a resounding achievement for Bartlett Sher and O'Hara's performance is as good as it gets. Watanabe commendably makes the King his own special, unique creation. The only Puzzlement here will be if this production does not run and run.
It is, as the song says, Something Wonderful.