Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The King and I

The King and I is an odd classic. Full of wonderful songs, it features a dumb plot with a cutesy approach to female enslavement, a condescending view of Siamese culture, unconvincing scenes that rely too heavily on the charms of the leads to cover their flaws, and a truly bizarre combination of cheerfulness, silliness, seriousness, and weirdness.

Kelli O'Hara
Photo: Paul Kolnik
Say we're willing to buy that a king would show so much interest in a teacher of his children. Say that we dismiss the ickiness of his receiving a woman as a gift as a cultural difference. Say we even give him credit for doing the best he can. We're still supposed to be pleased that the teacher--a smart and independent woman--is attracted to him, even though he's basically a slave owner who has sex with dozens of women whether or not they want to have sex with him.

And then, the teacher kills him by calling him a barbarian and making him look weak by stopping him from whipping a wayward wife--and in front of other people!

In the production of The King and I at Lincoln Center, Kelli O'Hara (lovely but not all that interesting as Anna) and Ken Watanabe (chewing the exquisite scenery as the king) lack the charm and chemistry to distract from the show's weak points. It doesn't help that Ashley Park as Tuptim and Conrad Ricamora as Lun Tha are more interested in the sounds of their own voices than each other. Nor does it help that Bartlett Sher blocks the show with constant and distracting movement.  I respect that Sher is (I assume) trying to make sure that everyone in the difficult Beaumont Theatre has a chance to see what is going on, but the show starts to look busy for busy-ness' sake. In particular, the King and Anna circle each other like boxers in the ring, which is effective up to a point but becomes annoying.

The show doesn't lack strengths. O'Hara's singing is often wonderful, and "Getting to Know You" is a pleasure. Ruthie Ann Miles is a formidable and excellent Lady Thiang. And the show is gorgeous to look at, from the second you set foot in the theatre. The sets, designed by Michael Yeargan, are downright scrumptious.

(third row, to audience left of center, member ticket)

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