Two decades ago, Lincoln Center Theater won acclaim for its rethought, rejuvenated revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.” In 2008, magic struck again with its Tony-winning revival of R&H’s “South Pacific.”
Now LCT brings us R&H’s 1951 masterpiece “The King and I,” which had been prepared by the creative team behind “South Pacific” (including director Bartlett Sher) and is headlined by Kelli O’Hara (Nellie in “South Pacific”).
O’Hara plays Anna, the 19th century Englishwoman who is hired to teach the children and wives of the King of Siam.
She is joined by Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the King (originally played by Yul Brynner), who recognizes the need to embrace Western values but remains attached to autocratic rule.
“The King and I” holds up incredibly well as a piece of drama. The songs are beautiful, the characters are complex and its themes of democratization, cultural miscommunication and gender inequality are timely.
Sher’s production, which features a 51-member cast and a 29-piece orchestra, is generally impressive and satisfying (how could it not be given the music itself and the lavish production values?), but it doesn’t match the brilliance of his “South Pacific” revival.
It is very difficult to understand what Watanabe is saying. He has an imposing presence and highly theatrical spirit, but his diction stops the show in its tracks.
O’Hara, one of the finest actresses working in musical theater today, delivers a fine, sympathetic performance as the staunch Anna, but it is hardly as captivating as her sexy Nellie.
The standout of the production is Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang, the King’s chief wife, who understands him better than anyone else.
Much of Jerome Robbins’ stunning original choreography has been retained, including the “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence.
If you go: “The King and I” plays through July 5 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. 150 W. 65th St., KingandIBroadway.com.