Director Barlett Sher has successfully brought historical accuracy to the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I. He is aided by choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who infuses every dance with real moves from khon, the royally-sponsored classical dance form of Thailand. More on that later.
The King and I takes place in 1860’s Bangkok, when Thailand was still called Siam, and follows the stormy but ultimately affectionate relationship that develops between King Mongkut and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher he employs to teach his wives and children.
Kelli O’Hara plays a more guarded Anna than you see in most productions, but still one with plenty of steely resolve. Guarded and steely are not the adjectives you’d use whenever she sings, however – then she’s warm and shimmering.
Much has been made of Ken Watanabe’s difficulties with enunciating clearly enough for the stage. Too, much, I’d say: yes, sometimes it is difficult to understand exactly what he’s saying, but he’s such a fine actor that there is rarely any doubt as to what he means. His king is closer to the intellectually and politically brilliant Mongkut of history than Yul Brenner’s charismatic macho bully.
The drive towards authenticity is also helped by musical arrangements (the original arrangements? It would seem so…) that incorporate references to traditional Thai piphat ensembles and Buddhist chanting. Gattelli’s use of khon reaches a climax in the “The Small House of Uncle Thomas”, which in this production is less a joke on the misunderstandings between east and west, and more a moving tribute to powerful underlying connections between the two. The dancing ensemble, led by Christopher Vo, Cole Horibe and Xiaochuan Xie bring this conception to vigorous, electrifying life.
The most moving dance though, is the 11 O’Clock number “Shall We Dance”, with O’Hara’s enormous Catherine Zuber-designed gown sweeping grandly around the capacious stage, with Gattelli wisely hewing closely to original choreographer Jerome Robbins’s simple yet powerful approach. That’s the soul of the show right there, as it should be. Recommended.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.