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Point for point, “The King and I,” which has just been revived by Lincoln Center Theater for the first time on Broadway since 1998, is the most artistically successful of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. The book is intelligent and affecting, the score inspired, and Jerome Robbins’ choreography for the original production, which survives in its entirety, is as lovely today as it was in 1951. But “The King and I” presents any company that wants to revive it with three major problems. The palatial scenic requirements make it impossible to mount on the cheap, and Yul Brynner’s legendary star turn as the King of Siam, which was documented in the well-remembered 1956 screen version, is to this day oppressively familiar to all who dare to attempt his signature role.
No less problematic in our post-colonialist age of political correctness is the fact that Oscar Hammerstein II, impeccably liberal though he was, portrayed the King of Siam as a spoiled, willful man-child sorely in need of a stiff dose of the Western values that are spoon-fed to him by Anna, the British widow whom he imports to tutor his children. That premise, to put it mildly, is no longer in elite favor. How to make it go down smoothly?
Director Bartlett Sher’s solution to the second and third problems is to cast an Asian actor, Japan’s Ken Watanabe, in Brynner’s role while simultaneously underlining the show’s proto-feminist aspect. As for the first problem, Lincoln Center Theater has “solved” it by spending a barrel of money on this production, in which Michael Yeargan, the set designer, makes gloriously creative use of the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s deep thrust stage. The results are satisfying to the highest possible degree: I doubt I’ll see a better production of “The King and I” in my lifetime.
Mr. Watanabe gets out from Brynner’s long shadow by giving a performance that is gleefully playful, regally commanding and wholly his own. His thick Japanese accent is something of a trial in “A Puzzlement,” but that’s the only thing slightly wrong with him, and Kelli O’Hara leaves nothing whatsoever to be desired as Anna. Firm but not priggish, touching but never sentimental, she stands up to Mr. Watanabe like a redwood to a tornado…
“Innocuous” isn’t the kind of adjective that a drama critic longs to use to describe a new musical, but there’s nothing better to be said for “Finding Neverland,” the stage version of the 2004 Johnny Depp-Kate Winslet film about the writing of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” Not only does James Graham’s too-tasteful book bleach all the strangeness out of the story of Barrie’s relationship with the children who inspired his 1904 play, but the Gary Barlow-Eliot Kennedy score is an endless string of skim-milk pop-rock anthems, and Matthew Morrison (lately of “Glee”) is insipid as Barrie….
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To read my complete review of The King and I, go here.
To read my complete review of Finding Neverland, go here.
A video montage of scenes from the Lincoln Center Theater revival of The King and I: