With “The King and I,” Broadway has a wonderful old musical and a major new star: Lou Diamond Phillips may have a gem in his name, but his performance in a role heretofore associated exclusively with Yul Brynner is 24-karat gold. And he does it with hair.
This is not meant in any way to slight Donna Murphy, the “I” of the title’s equation. But anyone who has watched this peerless singer evolve from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” through “Song of Singapore,” “Hello, Again” and, triumphantly, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion,” knows that she is a musical-theater performer of giddy-making versatility.With “The King and I,” Broadway has a wonderful old musical and a major new star: Lou Diamond Phillips may have a gem in his name, but his performance in a role heretofore associated exclusively with Yul Brynner is 24-karat gold. And he does it with hair.
This is not meant in any way to slight Donna Murphy, the “I” of the title’s equation. But anyone who has watched this peerless singer evolve from “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” through “Song of Singapore,” “Hello, Again” and, triumphantly, in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Passion,” knows that she is a musical-theater performer of giddy-making versatility.
Still, who would have guessed, given those credits, that she would come across as a Julie Andrews-style Rodgers and Hammerstein heroine (as opposed to the Gertrude Lawrence or Mary Martin type)? That she is completely terrific as the widowed schoolteacher Anna Leonowens is, for better or worse, an anticlimax. Murphy is now the Allstate lady of Broadway: The moment she begins singing “I Whistlea Happy Tune,” well, you know you’re in good hands.
And yet here is Phillips, arms stiffly curved at his sides like parentheses unable to contain the exclamation point of his body, barking at everyone around him. In his Broadway debut, the film star is a master of the arched eyebrow and the slow burn — make that the sly burn — and he’s very sexy; that barking is imbued with a touching vulnerability that’s irresistible. Whrn, in the middle of the second act, the King and Anna have their tete-a-tete on the floor down front, with just two diaphanous scrims waving gently behind them in the scene leading up to “Shall We Dance?,” this gaudy bauble of a production achieves an intimacy you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on Broadway.
And when Anna begins teaching the King to dance a polka — she in a spectacular golden gown whose skirt seems to extend from West 52nd Street to Times Square, he in regal bloody reds and shimmering golds — the musical shivers with anticipation made all the more agonizing because we know it’s about to be shattered beyond repair with the capture of the runaway concubine, Tuptim (Joohee Choi).
It’s an awesome eyeful, too, this $ 5.5 million show, which originated in Australia five years ago under John Frost’s aegis. Scarlet and gold are the dominant colors, elephants the dominant motif in Brian Thomson’s glittery design, which extends out into the house: There are Buddhists in the boxes and incense in the air. The king’s throne room is a riot of gold stuff dangling slightly off balance, and sometimes the whole mechanism threatens to keel over in a kitschy cataclysm.
And yet those scrims, red and blue, define the musical’s two most intimate moments: in act one, when Tuptim sings her bitter soliloquy, “My Lord and Master,” and then in “Song of the King” just before “Shall We Dance?” Costumier Roger Kirk seems to have given Murphy all the gorgeous Jane Greenwood gowns Marin Mazzie got to wear in “Passion,” and the rest of the costumes are intricate and appealing. It’s all lit with vibrant intensity by Nigel Levings, whose only misstep is the garish light that falls on the King in the closing scene.
Three other major voices are in evidence here: Choi and Jose Llana, as Tuptim’s lover, Lun Tha, are exceptional in “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” And Taewon Kim, as Lady Thiang, gets the lovely “Something Wonderful” and delivers it big. The show’s non-singing star is Randall Duk Kim, as the gruff but oddly likable Kralahome.
What with all those wives and children, there’s major traffic on the Neil Simon stage — the company numbers 53 in all — and Oz director Christopher Renshaw dispatches them with finesse. Jerome Robbins’ original choreography has been lovingly re-created by Susan Kikuchi.
Two additional, heavily Eastern-influenced dances (“Royal Dance Before the King” and “Procession of the White Elephant”), with music pieced together from different Rodgers sources and choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, have been added for New York. (All they really add to, however, is the kitsch level, and one had to wonder what Robbins, in the audience at the performance caught, was thinking.)
Among the other changes, some dialogue bits from Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for the 1956 20th Century Fox film (directed by Walter Lang and starring Brynner and Deborah Kerr) have found their way into the revival, and the original act two opener, “Western People Funny,” was dropped early in the Broadway preview with the blessing of the R&H heirs.
On the heels of “Show Boat” and “State Fair,” Oscar Hammerstein II is right up there with Andrew Lloyd Webber as a triple threat on Broadway. “The King and I” is no radical rethinking of a classic. It’s just first-rate, star-making showmanship — something wonderful, indeed.