By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1951 musical "The King and I" is getting the royal treatment on Broadway with a 29-piece orchestra and huge cast in a production critics say is breathtaking and beautiful.
The show that opened on Thursday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater tells the story of the Welsh widow, Anna Leonowens, who travels to Bangkok in the 1860s to become a teacher to the King of Siam's children.
English actress Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner immortalized the roles in the 1956 film "The King and I," which won five Oscars, including best actor for the Russian-born Brynner, who took home a Tony award for his portrayal of King Mongkut in the original Broadway show.
In the new stage production, Tony nominee Kelli O'Hara takes on the role of the feisty Anna with Japanese actor Ken Watanabe as the imposing monarch.
"You can't overstate how stunningly beautiful, how achingly well sung this new revival of 'The King and I, is" said the New York Post newspaper.
Although written more than 60 years ago, USA Today said the musical about different cultures and love was still relevant.
"The 'King and I' still has much to tell us about our differences and shared interests - about all the beautiful and new things we can learn from each other, day to day," it added.
The show reunites O'Hara with director Bartlett Sher, who worked together on "South Pacific," in a performance the trade magazine Variety described as "ravishing."
The Daily News said she more than delivers in the role.
"She conveys Anna's feistiness and fair-mindedness in her acting and silky singing," it added. "Her quiet, near-conversational approach to "I Whistle A Happy Tune" and "Getting to Know You" invests sugary numbers with real heft."
Variety also praised the performance, saying O'Hara has never sung with more command or acted with more assurance.
Although some critics found fault with Watanabe's English, the New York Times said he delivered, particularly during the song "Shall We Dance?"
"Mr. Watanabe's eyes narrow, his voice deepens and he firmly claps his co-star's waist," the newspaper said. "Sex has entered the building."
The Hollywood Reporter lauded the leads and heaped praise on the massive ensemble of more than 50 for the nearly three-hour production.
"The crippling economics of Broadway have long since ushered in the era of downsized casts and mini-orchestras, so the sheer spectacle value of an opulently costumed 50-member troupe, accompanied by 29 musicians in the pit, is enough to make a musical-theater lover's head explode," he said.
(Editing by Alan Crosby)