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The King and I

Review by Bona Ruocco
28 May 2015

Steeped in history, the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I is back in its first Broadway revival since 1996, in a lavish and sumptuous production directed by Bartlett Sher and starring Broadway favourite Kelli O'Hara as the schoolteacher and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam. Kelli has a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for this role, to add to her previous nominations for The Pajama Game, South Pacific, Nice Work If You Can Get It and The Bridges of Madison County. For Watanabe however, the show marks his American stage debut, having previously appeared in a string of Hollywood blockbusters such as Batman Begins, Inception and Godzilla as well as numerous Japanese theatre roles.

The King and I enjoyed its first Broadway run way back in 1951 when it became a smash hit, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actress (Gertrude Lawrence) and Best Featured Actor (Yul Brynner). Brynner went on to star in the 1956 film version, winning him an Oscar and making the actor an international star. With a pedigree like that, this version has a lot to live up to. No pressure then!

Set in 1860's Bangkok, the plot revolves around widowed British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who goes to Siam after being hired by the King to teach his many wives and children. This King wishes to modernise his country with the schoolteacher playing a major role in this objective. Anna and the King are both set in their very stubborn ways, but eventually warm to each other. They are also polar opposites - she is more of a feminist who will fight for her rights and he is a total male chauvinist. The initial bickering makes way for some tenderness and comical moments, but we are never far from a fully blown argument. Sub plots keep us further entertained across the show's 2 hours and 50 minute running time. And the King's children provide us with so many 'aww' moments as they are so incredibly cute and melt hearts whenever they appear on stage, with their cheeky smiles and funny mannerisms, all respectfully done.

The other great thing about The King and I has to be the score, which is performed by a top class orchestra (orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, music direction by Ted Sperling). Songs include the classic 'Getting To Know You', 'Hello Young Lovers' and 'Shall We Dance'. While Kelli O'Hara can deliver a tune to a very high standard, it is actually Ruthie Ann Miles (Lady Thiang, the King's Chief Wife) that totally excels each time it is her turn to belt out a song. I can only use one word to describe this: wow. Unfortunately the weak link here is Watanabe, as his singing is merely average and really didn't connect with me. In fact, I had a couple of issues with Watanabe. He certainly looked great with the right sort of presence required in such a role and also evoked the spirit of the legendary Brynner, but he was at times quite difficult to understand. However, this didn't spoil the overall enjoyment of the show as we are able to get the gist of what he is trying to say (most of the time!).

The show starts in style with a real wow-factor - a boat appears on stage carrying schoolteacher Ann and her son Lucas, played by Jake Lucas. Much of the show's budget must have been spent on this opening scene and the rest of the show's set is more of a basic affair, though it still manages to look stunning, majestic and lavish. The lighting is also very effective and all these elements, together with the beautifully designed costumes really do make you feel that you are right there at the Palace in Siam all those years ago.

The cast and musicians manage to sweep you away to a bygone era, where men were supreme and women had to be subservient. As is often the case, however, there is always at least one rebel, and the delightful Kelli O'Hara may appear enchanting and sweet, but as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens she certainly knows how to speak her mind. She is perfect for the role.

Overall I found the production a faithful and enjoyable version of the legendary show, and well worth a look. It's a classic and it just seems rude not to go and see it!

(Bona Ruocco)

"Bartlett Sher's resplendent production"
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"This splendid revival emerges as majestic and intimate simultaneously."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"You can't overstate how stunningly beautiful, how achingly well sung this new revival of 'The King and I' is."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

"Nothing is lost in translation; this King and I speaks a universal language of love."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"This production of "The King and I" is definitely something wonderful."
Jennifer Farrar for The Associated Press

"The mutual fascination and eternal struggle for understanding across the cultural divide between East and West is played out on a magnificent scale in Lincoln Center Theater's breathtaking revival of 'The King and I.'"
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

"Broadway's darling, Kelli O'Hara, is ravishing as the English governess to the children in the royal household of the King of Siam, played by the powerfully seductive Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe. But the production itself, with its operatic sweep and opulent aesthetic, is the star of its own show."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Time Out - Associated Press - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

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