The King and I is everything a classic musical should be. In director Bartlett Sher’s beautiful production, now playing at Broadway’s Vivian Beaumont Theater at the Lincoln Center, the familiar story comes to life gloriously.
The show follows Anna (Kelli O’Hara), a British widow who has come to Siam (or Thailand, as it’s known in the twenty-first century) to teach the children of the King (Hoon Lee). The two clash: Anna is sure the King had promised her a house of her own, instead of accommodation in the palace, and her Western views collide with his culture. Anna doesn’t like that the King has multiple wives, and she thinks he should be less strict with Tuptim (Ashley Park), a Burmese slave who is love with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora). As Anna works to educate the King’s wives and his adorable children, he starts to trust her, and they work together to ensure that Britain will not declare Siam their protectorate, which would effectively end the King’s autonomy.
O’Hara is delightful as Anna – a plucky 1860s feminist. Her voice is pure and sweet, and her smile is radiant in a Julia Roberts kind of way. Finding a leading man who can shine opposite O’Hara’s brilliant wattage isn’t easy, but Lee acquits himself quite well as the King, with great comedic timing and a rich voice (it’s a shame the King doesn’t have more numbers that show off his lower register).
The production as a whole is quite sumptuous, with gorgeous costumes by Catherine Zuber and beautiful lighting by Donald Holder. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design makes fantastic use of the Beaumont’s space, filling it when necessary (like with the imposing ship Anna arrives on at the beginning of the show), but mostly leaving it unobscured, making the stage really feel like a spacious palace. During the overture and finale, the thrust stage doesn’t cover the 29-piece orchestra (conducted by Andrew Resnick), and it’s a treat to see and hear those marvellous musicians performing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stunning score. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography (based on Jerome Robbins’s original choreography) is vivid and well-executed by the cast.
Sher’s direction is quite good, though the show drags a bit in the middle of each act (The Small House of Uncle Thomas, the ballet performed by the characters in the musical’s second act, seems to go on for much longer than it needs to). The Siamese characters’ pidgin English does feel a little racist, and though the show is set in Southeast Asia, many of the cast members are of Korean, Japanese and Chinese descent.
Those qualms aside, The King and I is a decadent treat and an incredibly beautiful show.
The King and I is playing at the Lincoln Center Theater and is currently booking until 5 June. For more information and tickets, see the Lincoln Center Theater website. Photo: Paul Kolnik.