The King and I

The King and I production that's in previews at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on Broadway is perhaps indicative of how many shows are nowadays: polished, professional, aesthetically pleasing. Bartlett Sher's revival does nothing radical with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The iconic bits, like the long Jerome Robbins' ballet "Small House of Uncle Thomas" or the march of the King's children are lovingly recreated. Sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Catherine Zuber aren't really spectacular but they follow the outlines of, well, what you'd expect to see in a The King and I production. Zuber has gone to great lengths to recreate Deborah Kerr's enormous hoop skirts.

This is in many ways a good thing. The American in Paris attempted to do too much and the results were (in my opinion) tedious and pretentious. The King and I is a perfect evening for those who loved the original musical or the classic film adaptation. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll whistle a happy tune.

There's only one problem: as it stands, the show seems more like a homage to past greatness than a living, vibrant musical. Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe as the leads are, as I said, polished and professional, but they don't catch fire the way Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr did. O'Hara and Watanabe seem distant and cordial to one another at all times -- that wonderful moment when in "Shall We Dance" when the King places his hands on Anna's waist goes for nothing.

For a glimpse of the sexual tension that was missing last night:

Listen to the quiver in Kerr's voice as she says, "No, as a matter of fact ..." Kelli's cheerful, matter-of-fact delivery of the same line neutered the whole scene.

Of course the Kerr/Brynner pairing was one of those happy felicities where lightning simply struck at the right time. Brynner was (let's not beat around the bush here) hot as hell, and Kerr had the perfect mixture of stiff upper lip with an underlying sexual curiosity and intensity. The two of them had fantastic chemistry. Yes, Kerr's singing had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon, yes the yellow-face on the extras was cringeworthy, yes several songs got cut, but the film still sizzles, all these years later. 

Kelli O'Hara (Anna) on the other hand exudes a cheery confidence and the niceness of an elementary schoolteacher. This is all to the good. But her Anna is not particularly warm. In fact, Kelli's Anna might be exhibit A for the crucial difference between warm and nice. Warm suggests inner feelings, niceness is the surface affect. The connection to the King came across as slightly superficial -- a bit like colleagues at a workplace who might like chatting during lunch, but it begins and ends there. Someone also needs to fix that overly fussy wig -- just way too much hair. 

Most of Anna's songs ("Hello Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance," Getting to Know You") are indestructible. O'Hara has an absolutely lovely voice, but the role seems to lie too low for her, as her voice sounded grainy and somewhat bottled up at times and didn't bloom the way I expected. I heard her as Valencienne in the Met's The Merry Widow and that high soprano part was way more her metier. 

Ken Watanabe's diction was at times very hard to understand -- not a surprise, as English is not his first language. The King doesn't have to do much actual singing, but Watanabe struggled sometimes with the bits of singing he had to do -- he completely flubbed a section of "Is a Puzzlement." I think before the show opens officially they still need to work with a diction coach so his dialogue is more clearly articulated.

Watanabe's acting sometimes mimicked the iconic Yul Brynner poses and mannerisms (like the exaggeration of "etc. etc. etc" and the pigeon-toed strut) but Watanabe did differentiate his portrayal from Brynner in some crucial ways. Brynner was full of swagger, Watanabe seemed plagued by self-doubts from the beginning. But at other times Watanabe looked just flat out uncomfortable all by himself on the stage, and I'm not sure this (or his lack of chemistry with O'Hara) can really be fixed. 

The production really shines in other ways -- first of all, there isn't that usual tiny Broadway band, but a respectable sized orchestra (situated under the stage, Bayreuth style). That made the music sound less canned than usual. The dancers and extras (including the children) were wonderful. They took great care to cast Asian dancers and actors and avoid yellow-face. "Small House of Uncle Thomas" was hands down the highlight of the show. The iconic Robbins choreography was as enchanting as ever and Ashley Park (Tuptim) nearly stole the show with her heartfelt portrayal of the unhappy Burmese "present" to the King.

In fact, Park is reason enough to see this show. She's absolutely lovely as Tuptim. Her duets with Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora) were highlights and not just throwaway numbers in a side plot. Ruthie Ann Miles gave a much more modern portrayal of Lady Thiang but it worked -- you believed that this strong-willed woman kept the peace in the palace and harem. Jon Viktor Corpuz (Prince Chulalongkorn) was also very strong and again, not a throwaway character.

There's so much good about this show that one is tempted to believe that maxim "good is the enemy of great." Kelli O'Hara is very good as Anna, she's just not great. Ken Watanabe is good as the King, but he's not great either. The production is good, the sets are good, the costumes are good, the singing is (mostly) good, the dancing is very very good, etc., etc., etc.

In contrast, there's a lot about the 1956 film that isn't good. The dubbing by Marni Dixon is intrusive . Rita Moreno in yellow-face as Tuptim is cringeworthy, as is the exaggerated pidgin English much of the cast adapts (it's thankfully minimized in the Sher revival). The obvious studio sets give the film an artificial feel. And the lack of irony in the "Western exceptionalism" zeitgeist comes across as hopelessly naive in the post-Vietnam era. But Yul Brynner's towering performance as the King and Deborah Kerr's equally heartfelt Anna make the film great.

Maybe good really is the enemy of great.


  1. Thank you Ivy. A nice review. Brought back memories, and anticipation.

    Thanks for posting the clip from the film.


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