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'The King and I' review: Sumptuous musical theater

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in "The King and I." Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik

Seven years ago, the Lincoln Center Theater transformed the way we perceive "South Pacific" with a revival that found the timely darkness in the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical while gloriously honoring its grand entertainment.

Now the same creative team, including star Kelli O'Hara, has reassembled to do it again, magnificently, with "The King and I." Director Bartlett Sher's sweepingly romantic production aches with deep, unforced understanding of the story's East/West cultural divide while luxuriating in the sumptuous pleasures of the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.

Two conspicuous differences exist between this shimmering, deeply rooted and delightful production and the original, identified almost-forever by Yul Brynner's iconic King of Siam. First, almost everyone in his court is actually played by Asians. And the king himself is now powerfully inhabited by Ken Watanabe, the Japanese movie star of "The Last Samurai" in his musical-theater -- not to mention his English-language -- debut. Contrary to rumored problems with his pronunciation, every word is as clear as the impact behind it.

The coupling of the actor with O'Hara as the English schoolteacher is inspired -- full of aching attraction and the impossible tension of smart, beautiful people from different worlds. O'Hara, with her silvery pinpoint vocal precision and her natural empathy, creates an Anna of fierce, caring intelligence. Watanabe, who shaved his head but is nothing like Brynner, is imposingly tall, masculine yet enormously vulnerable as the ruler of an isolated, male-dominated world and whose doubts about modernization eventually break both their hearts.

Sher's "South Pacific" opened with the sight and sound of a full, dressed-up 30-piece orchestra. This time, designer Michael Yeargan lets us enjoy the same Broadway rarity before a huge ship carrying Anna slides over it to dock. The sets are sumptuous but relatively stark. Catherine Zuber's gorgeous costumes include preposterously flattering hoop skirts for Anna and graceful wraps for the court.

Highlights in the big, fine cast -- not counting the nonstop precious children -- include Ruthie Ann Miles as the King's number one wife and Ashley Park as the woman given to the king as a gift from the king of Burma.

Sher surrounds the love story with dark shadows of Western imperialism and the plight of women. But nothing overshadows the staggering wealth of the songs -- including "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You" and "Something Wonderful." One after another they come, many introduced by brilliant recitatives that, like the Jerome Robbins "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, are little plays in themselves.

How good to be getting to know the show all over again.

 

WHERE Lincoln Center Theater, 65th Street at Columbus Avenue

INFO $87-$162; 212-239-6200; lct.org

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