I don’t normally get a chance to see a production after its recent Tony win. Usually once a show gets the coveted award, tickets are hard to come by for months, even years. But luckily, I was able to experience what is one of the most perfectly captivating and beautiful revivals I have ever seen. In all honesty, The King and I will always be, without a doubt, my favorite work of Rodgers and Hammerstein. That isn’t to say that their other classics aren’t as important to me, but there is something utterly enchanting about the story of Anna and the King that never stops entertaining me (and many others) time and time again.
For the few that have no clue what The King and I is, it is best to look into the past. It is loosely based on the true story of British school teacher Anna Leonowens, who was recruited in the mid-1800’s to help the King of Siam teach his wives and children the English language, and more about the world outside of their country. The driving force of the story is the developing relationships between Anna, the King, and the dramatic cultural difference between their two worlds. And though some facts from the true story have been fluffed up a bit on stage, there is no denying that this is an engaging tale, as evidence by the multiple productions and adaptations of the story–stage, film and otherwise.
But with so many people familiar with this tale, each new production runs the risk of everything feeling old hat, and lacking in any sort of inventiveness or creativity. Luckily for this new Lincoln Center production, Director Bartlett Sher fantastically brings a fresh take on the classic piece, one that harkens back to a slightly 90’s take on theater, with a grand scale (in both visuals and emotions) shown throughout. This is especially reflected in the set design by Michael Yeargan, including a giant boat that looms over the audience, as if to say that the show itself is an intimidating adventure to take part of.
You might have noticed that The King and I did not go empty handed in the acting category this Tony season. With a cast of over forty, everyone here, leads and ensembles combined, is a class act. Kelli O’Hara proves here that she is a Broadway treasure. Her Anna is more reserved, calm and put together, coming off as regal and lovely as a the Queen of England herself would. This is also the most mature O’Hara has ever been on stage, who though she played an incredibly adult role in last year’s Bridges of Madison County, is the most grounded and controlled I have ever seen her.
Many have also wondered about Ken Watanabe’s portrayal of the King. Though at times it can be a bit hard to understand all of his dialog, I feel that Watanabe’s casting adds a new level of authenticity to such an iconic role. His strengths are obviously in the comedic aspects of the character, as well as the romantic tension between him and Anna. It’s a shame that most critics have let Watanabe’s accent color their view point on his entire performance, because he truly deserves a chance to be honored and recognized.
But clearly the star of this production is Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang. This woman obviously won the Tony for a reason, and it shows in every second she is on stage. In prior productions, Lady Thiang had never gotten the true respect and attention she deserved, but with Miles’s portrayal, its hard not to fall desperately in love with the character. This especially comes across in the scenes where Thiang is pleading for Anna’s help with the King, a man she loves in an almost painful fashion, but knows he’ll never completely devote himself to her. And when Miles performs “Something Wonderful,” you can’t help but get caught up in Thiang’s emotional struggle.
The small touches and changes, such as Thiang’s evolution as a character, are what make this 2015 revival an obvious winner among its other competitors this season. This is Broadway at its best, the kind that our grandparents told us about, that has charm seeping from its pours. It might not be the most groundbreaking and revolutionary piece of theater to exist, but it is the kind of theatrical production we don’t see too often on the Great White Way these days. It is the kind of stuff that is worth the full price of admission, that never fails to impress, and shows yet again why Lincoln Center’s revivals are and will always be considered among the best.
The King and I is currently playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center