The King and I

Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara

The final installment of recorded-live theater favorites currently being offered on PBS’s Great Performances is the sumptuous 2015 Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic 1951 musical “The King and I,” to be broadcast at 9 p.m. Aug. 21.

The recording took place in 2018 at the London Palladium after the Tony Award-winning revival transferred to the West End for a limited engagement. The production contains original Lincoln Center cast members Ken Watanabe as the King (who, like Yul Brynner in the 1951 production, is more of a dynamic physical presence than Broadway-quality performer), the silver-throated Kelli O’Hara as the smart and scrappy Mrs. Anna, and the wonderful Ruthie Ann Miles as head wife Lady Thiang. All the gorgeous staging, the 29-piece orchestra and the impressive production values are the same as the Lincoln Center production as well.

Set in 1862, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, whom the modernist but conflicted King brings to imperialistic Siam (modern-day Thailand) to tutor his many wives and children. The score features a treasure trove of timeless, hummable Rodgers and Hammerstein hits, most notably “Getting to Know You” and “Hello Young Lovers.”

The problem with a revival that is preceded by a popular movie version of the musical, which is the case with shows like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The King and I,” is the memories and expectations audiences bring to the newer stage production tend to be cinematic. The same is true of modern musicals that are based on a popular movie, such as “Mary Poppins” and “The Producers.” Even the pure spectacle, remarkable artistry and high-energy performances of a live production of “The Lion King” operates in the shadow of the Disney animated original.

Broadway director Bartlett Sher realizes this and intentionally incorporates some epic cinematic moments into his stage production of this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Look for the movie-like sense of motion and scope – complemented by Michael Yeargan’s visually dramatic sets that are color-saturated with Donald Holder’s lighting design – when Anna and her son first arrive in Bangkok on a ship that steams its way into port.

During the extraordinary “Shall We Dance?” number in the show’s second act, the Royal Palace pillars move in opposition to the choreography, as if the movement of the dancers were captured through a roving camera, which cleverly mimics one of the film’s most iconic moments. Later in the play, the King’s death bed rotates to give the viewing audience a dramatic and very cinematic change in perspective.

Said Variety theater critic Marilyn Stasio, about the 2015 Broadway revival: “The production itself, with its operatic sweep and opulent aesthetic, is the star of its own show.”

Also, the camera work used to capture this production for PBS’s Great Performances – which includes sweeping crane shots, plenty of panning and well-timed jump edits to close ups – is steeped in cinematic sensibilities. But never does Sher or Gary Halvorson, who directed the recording, lose sight of the golden-age musical material in which this revival is sentimentally grounded. The musical numbers are always front and center and choreographer Christopher Gattelli’s work very much reflects the vintage choreography created by Jerome Robbins for the original.

No recorded-live production can capture all that is spectacular in a live production. Still, this PBS program is stunning.


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3 or visit cjn.org/Abelman. 2019 Ohio SPJ Best Critic.

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