NEW YORK (AP) — There's a new King in town, and Kelli O'Hara's got him. Rodgers & Hammerstein's classic musical "The King and I" is getting an elegant, thoughtful revival courtesy of Lincoln Center Theater.
O'Hara stars as a feisty English schoolteacher along with Ken Watanabe as the King of Siam, who hires her in 1860 to live in his Bangkok palace and provide a Western education to his many children and wives.
Lincoln Center Theater's stirring production opened Thursday night at the Vivian Beaumont under the sophisticated direction of Bartlett Sher, who won the 2008 Tony for best musical revival for LCT's production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "South Pacific."
There's an opulent, almost operatic feel to this production, and the music and dancing are richly presented by orchestra and the large cast of 51. The uplifting score features a number of beloved songs, including "Getting To Know You," ''Shall We Dance?" and "Something Wonderful." Christopher Gattelli's graceful choreography is based on the original choreography of Jerome Robbins, so the production feels fresh and yet familiar, too.
Five-time Tony Award-nominated O'Hara, most recently seen in "The Bridges of Madison County," gives a warm, loving persona to young widow Anna Leonowens, who must navigate sexism and cultural differences to get along with the capricious king. She establishes a ladylike friendship with him, while the charming royal children and bashful wives all come to adore her. O'Hara is perfectly suited to her role as a prideful Englishwoman, and sings rapturously throughout the show, especially on her poignant renditions of "Hello, Young Lovers."
Watanabe, best known in America for his Oscar-nominated performance in the film "The Last Samurai," is making his American stage debut as the King. He delivers a layered performance despite some difficulties enunciating English, notably in the song "Puzzlement." His king is, by turns, mischievous and morose, and generally commanding except for some distractingly childish moments.
Many audience members will compare Watanabe's work to the iconic portrayal by Yul Brynner, who basically owned the role for more than three decades. Starring in the 1951 Broadway premier and the popular 1956 movie version, Brynner performed as King for a record 4,625 performances, both on Broadway and on the road in two long national tours.
However, Watanabe is quite natural in the role, and creates a pleasing chemistry with O'Hara as their characters establish a friendship despite obstacles that include differing attitudes on racism and slavery. At least they're like-minded on the ever-threatening "protection" of European nations encroaching on Asian countries.
Ruthie Ann Miles (of "Here Lies Love") is wise and kindhearted as head wife, Lady Thiang, soulfully singing about her love for the king in "Something Wonderful." As rebellious Burmese slave-wife Tuptim, Ashley Park acts and sings her heart out in passionate duets with her secret lover Lun Tha, (Conrad Ricamore), "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed."
The 11 winsome, scene-stealing children are featured in two special numbers, "March of the Siamese Children" and "Getting To Know You." Jon Viktor Corpuz provides gravitas as a solemn young Prince Chulalongkorn, who's next in line for the throne, and Paul Nakauchi is effective as Kralahome, the king's prime minister. Jake Lucas has a winning freshness as Anna's young son, Louis, and he and O'Hara are enchanting together in the opening number, "I Whistle a Happy Tune."
The ballet about a runaway slave, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," is beautifully danced by the ensemble. Another traditional show-stopper, "Shall We Dance?," is an ebullient number, as Anna and the King nearly gallop around the vast stage.
Following the impressive opening arrival of a British ship that fills the stage, the generally spare set design by Michael Yeargan serves as an elegant frame for the actors, who are sumptuously garbed in Catherine Zuber's colorful, meticulously detailed costumes. If you can accept the king's personality quirks, this production of "The King and I" is definitely something wonderful.