The astonishing Kelli O’Hara is back on Broadway. This time, she’s leading Lincoln Center’s respectful take on “The King and I,” as schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who stands up to the ruler of Siam -- here, Oscar-nominee and Broadway newcomer Ken Watanabe.
The revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical, set in 1860s Bangkok, has just opened at the Vivian Beaumont with a cast of more than 50.
Director Bartlett Sher elicits a performance from O’Hara that is equal parts self-confidence and frustration with the polygamist king, who has not kept his promise to give Anna a private home. (LCT’s resident director most recently guided the five-time Tony nominee in “The Bridges of Madison County”; their history together includes “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza.”)
O’Hara's Anna is fiercely determined, if cautious as a newcomer, and it’s thrilling to watch her negotiate the pitfalls involved in establishing herself at court.
She wins admiration from the king’s children for explaining to them Siam’s place in the world, even as she incurs the king’s wrath for filling their minds with notions of a “home life” that might not revolve around the palace. It’s hard not to be moved as O’Hara describes the beauty of a snowflake after the blissful “Getting to Know You” sequence.
O’Hara’s voice is in prime operatic form throughout, rivaled only by her ability to waltz in Catherine Zuber’s lavish, flowing gowns.
I had mixed feelings about Watanabe’s performance. The star of films such as "The Last Samurai" and “Letters from Iwo Jima” is having a blast bossing people around, especially Anna, who is forced to lower her head when the two are together -- it’s good to be king, right?
Watanabe’s got the imperiousness down pat, but he’s falling back on enough of his Japanese accent that it makes some of his line readings difficult to parse. As a result, it’s tough to immerse oneself fully in songs such as “The Puzzlement,” which comes as the king struggles with the complexities of the world.
It’s not a fatal flaw, whatever you’ve read in the chat rooms. And anyway, I could watch these two perform “Shall We Dance?” all night long -- he’s barefoot; she’s in heels.
Ruthie Ann Miles is achingly effective as Lady Thiang, the head wife who calls Anna “Sir” because the newcomer is “scientific.” When Thiang becomes aware of plots against the king, she confides in the foreigner, pressuring her to help him, though “It must not sound like advice.” Miles’ moment with “Something Wonderful” is precious.
Ashley Park and Conrad Ricamora, as Burmese lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha (below), sing magnificently. It’s nifty to see Ricamora, of TV’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” again sharing a stage with his “Here Lies Love” co-star Miles.
The crown prince (Jon Corpuz, striking a balance between fear and arrogance) is paired well with Louis, Anna’s son (Jake Lucas, sibling of “Fun Home” Obie-winner Sydney Lucas). They paint a portrait of two boys raised in different circumstances who find common ground.
“The March of Siamese Children,” in which a dozen of the king’s royal sons and daughters take solo turns greeting him and Anna, is one of this revival’s great pleasures. Another is the kaleidoscopic ballet within “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the anti-slavery play written by Tuptim after Anna lends her a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
The production is relatively spartan for LCT, but looks swell. The most attention-grabbing moment comes as the ship carrying Anna to Bangkok docks at port, leading into “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” The choreography by Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies,” etc.) is based on the original by Jerome Robbins.
Anna is summoned by the king to help modernize Siam. Her impact ends up being more personal than expected -- that’s a notion the musical presents eloquently with the ascension of the crown prince, who decrees that although he is still to be respected, there will be “no bowing like toad. "The King and I" requires a regal, charismatic leading lady, and in O’Hara, it has one who's just about perfect.
“The King and I,” with an open-ended run at the Vivian Beaumont, 150 W. 65th St. Tickets: $87-$142. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.