The King and I review [Broadway 2015]

The jewel in the crown of the current Broadway season, Rodgers and Hammerstein treasure The King and I gleams in a ravishing revival. The vision of esteemed director Bartlett Sher and team, in combination with the luminous talents of the cast, represents the current pinnacle of theatrical achievement.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Kelli O'Hara, Getting To Know You The Phantom’s chandelier and Miss Saigon’s helicopter, long held as the peak of heightened stage effects, have finally been usurped. Anna Leonowens and her son Louis enter on a boat so incredible that it would be difficult for readers of this review to believe, even if words could actually be found to describe the effect. No photos of this sequence have been released, leaving only one way to experience this wonder: buy a ticket and see it in person.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Jake Lucas, Kelli O'Hara

Assembling the same stellar team of collaborators as for his acclaimed South Pacific revival, Sher shows an even greater level of confidence and inspiration for The King and I, a musical that is already considered one of the greatest ever written. Directing an almost arena-sized production, Sher is able to include every detail and nuance that the script possibly calls for, creating an immensely satisfying, fully realised staging. If there is one inbuilt flaw, however, it is the need for constant movement so as to perform towards audience members around the 1800 curve of the auditorium.

Five-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara is dream casting as Anna, a role she was born to play. O’Hara expertly conveys the competing forces of ladylike grace and feisty feminism that fan the flames of Anna’s inner turmoil as she struggles to both respect and alter the King’s ways. And of course O’Hara’s golden soprano sounds divine as she sings all of Anna’s hit tunes.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Kelli O'Hara, Ken Watanabe

Movie actor Ken Watanabe makes his US stage debut in an electric portrayal of the King. Whilst it is usually just assumed that the characters speak in English for the audience’s sake, it is clear here that that the King is practically daring anyone not to use English. Watanabe maintains a high level of deliberate nervous energy to convey the high wire of tension the King straddles as he balances his affairs of state and home. Watanabe’s natural singing style suits the conversational tone of the King’s songs. Watanabe and O’Hara enjoy terrific chemistry. At the moment when the King and Anna come together to dance arm in arm in “Shall We Dance,” a proverbial pin drop could have been heard in the auditorium.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Kelli O'Hara, Ken Watanabe, Shall We Dance

Often a problematic moment at the end of a long night, Watanabe, with help from Sher, makes the King’s crippling loss of face very clear, also developing a damaged voice and physical condition for the final deathbed scene.

Ruthie Ann Miles skillfully conveys the proud carriage of head wife, Lady Thiang. Her rendition of “Something Wonderful,” while entirely lovely, is somewhat marred by the need to move about to include audience on all sides. This song is much more powerfully performed standing completely still.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Ruthie Ann Miles, Kelli O'Hara

Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora are fresh, appealing and talented as young forbidden lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha. Park is well served by “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, which gives her plenty of scope for drama, especially with Eliza dressed and coiffured to look exactly like Tuptim. The fate of these lovers seems especially moving in this production.

Designer Michael Yeargan has filled the vast Beaumont performance space with illustrated panels, decorative beams, a massive rear fortress wall and lovely hanging blossoms. With the main playing space thrust forward of the wings, the epic scale feels intimate in this theatre. The only drawback to this, however, is that set and prop pieces must constantly be carried on and off stage. The design palette of burgundy, purple and gold is all the richer for Donald Holder’s luscious lighting.

The King and I 2015 Broadway

Given a massive cast of well over 40 to dress, costume designer extraordinaire Catherine Zuber has created a sumptuous picture of palace life, with wives, children and priests outfitted in exotic jewel tones of red, orange, purple and sapphire. Zuber tells a story with Anna’s dresses, taking her from the contrasting shade of forest green, through cooler blues to lavender and finally to rich dark burgundy, showing that Anna has finally accepted the ways of the Siamese people.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Kelli O'Hara

Choreographer Christopher Gattelli adds some spirited movement to cover scene changes, as well as filling the large stage with the iconic polka of “Shall We Dance?.” Gattelli’s “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, based upon the work of Jerome Robbins, is as intricate and pristine as it is dramatically effective.

The King and I 2015 Broadway, Small House of Uncle Thomas

Ted Sperling presides over a lavish-sized orchestra of 29 players giving an exquisite performance of the beloved score. This is must-see theatre, provided you can secure a ticket.

The King and I was reviewed 8pm Wednesday 8 April 2015 at Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York

Photos: Paul Kolnik

8 replies »

  1. Hello Simon,
    I have just seen this production in the cinema and what a glorious interpretation of this masterclass in musical theatre writing.
    Visually uncluttered and a delight to look at, Sher added some fresh creative touches while respecting the original book.
    e.g. the king looking under Anna’s dress to see her steps during the Shall We Dance scene and the premonitions of his illness
    before the usual denouement in act 2.
    Something wonderful to hear the score intact inc the boys reprise of A Puzzlement. Am I correct in thinking that some productions have deleted Western People Funny because of PC concerns ?
    Kelli O’Hara ticks every box with superb diction and pulling back just in time before projecting too much modern thinking on the feminist issues in the book.
    Not such a big fan of Watanabe’s king.
    I found his performance uneven and whereas I understand his accent suits the character his diction at times did not flatter the lyrics and text.
    Ruthie Ann Miles’ Madame Thiang was superb. She used a walking cane throughout. Was this so in the production you saw ?
    I’m guessing she may have had a temporary injury ?
    Mind you, it added a wonderful dimension to her character and eliminated the movement issues that you mentioned.
    I think all future productions of The King and I should give her a similar cane LOL.
    I agree, the big numbers in any musical are better performed still and center stage, letting the song do all the work!
    Ben Mingay did this to great effect as Billy Bigelow singing Soliloquy during Carousel in Adelaide recently.

    • Hello Edward. Thanks for this lengthy report. Glad to hear that you had the chance this filmed staging. I like the idea that cinemas are screening recent products at this time while there are no new live shows overseas.

      I will never forget the sight of Mrs Anna floating on stage in her boat as the show opened. The space at Lincoln Center is different to the Palladium (where the London season was filmed), with a massive thrust and audience curved to surrounded 180 degrees of the stage. The free-moving boat looked amazing in that space.

      Sad news to report about Ruthie Ann Miles. She was walking in Brooklyn with a friend and they were hit by a car. Ruthie’s young child was killed instantly and she lost the baby she was carrying at the time. Such a terrible tragedy.

      So jealous that you saw Carousel. Let me know if you get to Sweeney Todd as well!

  2. Thank you for your considerate reply Simon.
    I was not aware of Ruthie Ann Miles’ tragic circumstances and I apologise if my comments may seem insensitive re her performance. Her courage and commitment are indeed inspiring. I appreciate your sharing this with me.

    I attended a Behind the Scenes night for Sweeney Todd in the SA State Opera’s rehearsal space at Netley.
    Seeing Ben Mingay’s stripped back interpretation of Sweeney ( sans costumes/sets/orchestra) has heightened my anticipation for the complete show in what will be my first visit to Adelaide’s re-imagined Her Majesty’s Theatre.

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