When our Drama Desk nominations were announced yesterday afternoon at 54 Below, I was surprised Kelli O’Hara wasn’t included in the Outstanding Actress in a Musical category for her performance in the revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. After seeing the show last night, I remain surprised. Her Anna is a strong, warm woman with a sense of humor and nothing stands between O’Hara and her character. She was wonderful and deserves to be nominated.
The show, directed by Bartlett Sher, was nominated for Outstanding Revival of a Musical, but the only other nod it received was for Scott Lehrer’s sound design. This is partly because the contenders this awards season are strong so the show faced stiff competition, but also because the production, although lovely to look at and listen to, falls just short of the spark of life this great musical deserves. With the exception of O’Hara, the cast of more than 50 seem to be doing their parts rather than being the parts, at least in the first act.
I had heard much about Ken Watanabe as the King and none of it was good. A theatre actor in his native Japan, he has appeared as Japanese characters in American films but is just now making his American stage debut, in a large-scale Broadway musical no less. A friend and fellow critic who knows the show well told me she couldn’t understand a word he said. I had heard from others that his accent was a problem, but I had no trouble following him. I think, though, that he is working so hard to master the dialogue, singing and dancing that he isn’t able to concentrate on giving the King much dimension. Still, I liked him.
The show is blessed with a strong supporting cast, especially Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang and Ashley Park as Tuptin.
And blessed with a wonderful 29-piece orchestra, under the direction of Ted Sperling. The musicians are on view during the overture, then Anna’s ship sails into harbor and the stage extends to cover them. When I saw this large prop (sets by Michael Yeargan) veering toward us, I thought I was in for a Lloyd Webber evening of excess, but this was the only such example, and quite a nice one for a dramatic entrance.
The ship, of course, brings Anna Leonowens, a Welsh widow, and her 9-year-old son, Louis (Jake Lucas), to 1860's Bangkok. Anna has been hired by the King of Siam to teach his multitude of children by his multitude of wives about the western world. Not only do cultures clash, but personalities as well. Anna is an independent-minded woman and the King is used to submissive wives and concubines. O’Hara always does a good job of bringing out the tension between these to conflicting characters and Wananabe does often enough to carry the story.
This theme of differing worlds learning to bend to one another is brought out in some of musical theatre’s most beloved songs, with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, and they are all richly sung. It’s a joy to hear O’Hara sing “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?,” and fun to watch her infuse humor through movement and tone into “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” And Miles’ “Something Wonderful” is just that.
The creative teams is excellent as well. Christopher Gattelli’s choreography, based on that created by Jerome Robbins for the show’s original production in 1951, is mesmerizing, especially in the dramatic “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet.
Catherine Zuber’s costumes are stunning and should have been nominated, but this season brought us a wealth of award-worthy costumes. Zuber was nominated in this category for Gigi.
Donald Holder’s lighting also was worthy of a nomination.
The show is three hours, brought down (thank God) from three and a half in early previews. The first act dragged and I was wishing it wasn’t going to be such a long night, but the second act picked up and I left the theatre in good spirits. It’s not a great revival, but it’s a quite good one, and that’s probably the next best thing to great.