In its heart of hearts, the extraordinarily deep and often underutilized thrust stage of Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater has probably always yearned to host an opera. That’s pretty much what director Bartlett Sher has wrought with his sumptuous revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical, “The King and I.” Broadway’s darling, Kelli O’Hara, is ravishing as the English governess to the children in the royal household of the King of Siam, played by the powerfully seductive Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe. But the production itself, with its operatic sweep and opulent aesthetic, is the star of its own show.
At the top of the first act, Anna Leonowens (O’Hara), the determined Englishwoman hired to tutor the royal offspring of the King of Siam, arrives on a ship that literally thrusts itself into the Bay of Bangkok. In visual language (which set designer Michael Yeargan speaks fluently), that’s a powerful image for the show’s still pertinent theme: the dissonant dynamic when Western civilization tries to assert its values on ancient Eastern cultures.
That cultural dialogue is at the heart of this absolutely stunning show. When Anna and her young son, Louis (Jake Lucas), arrive at the palace of King Mongkut (the magnificently regal Watanabe), the sheer splendor of the monarch and his court is breathtaking.
The true beauty of the King’s household takes human form in “The March of the Siamese Children,” a heart-melting procession of the monarch’s many, many darling children and their proud mothers, all costumed in generously draped, richly decorated, but surprisingly delicate court dress. It will take months before Anna will find the footing to turn out in her own Western splendor — the gorgeous, bare-shouldered, full-skirted mauve ball gown (Catherine Zuber’s piece de resistance) that she wears in “Shall We Dance?” for her jubilant polka with the King.
Until then, the cultural transference is slow and, as far as the proud and petulant King (whose subjects refer to him as “the royal tiger”) is concerned, quite problematical. Watanabe channels that confusion with manly charm in “A Puzzlement,” in which the Japanese star makes his own difficulties with the English language work in his favor. Whenever the children are in the room, however, the cultural exchange is pure sweetness and light. O’Hara has never sung with more vocal command or acted with more assurance, and she really opens her heart in “Getting to Know You.”
This interaction between East and West can turn perilous, however, as Anna discovers when she introduces Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fiery abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” to the King’s wives and concubines, whom she views as pampered slaves. The King’s first wife, Lady Thiang, played with great dignity by Ruthie Ann Miles, resists the lesson, being deeply in love with the King — so very deeply that she moves the house to tears with her shattering delivery of “Something Wonderful,” surely one of the most moving of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s love songs.
But the King’s junior wife, Tuptim (in an exquisite performance from Ashley Park), takes Mrs. Stowe’s appeal for universal emancipation very much to heart. A royal present from the King of Burma, Tuptim longs to flee the court to join her lover, Lun Tha (Conrad Ricamora). She dramatizes that yearning for freedom in “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” the enchanting Balinese ballet that Christopher Gattelli has reconstructed here from the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote “We Kiss in a Shadow” for the doomed lovers, whose passionate love scenes stir Anna’s memory of her late husband in “Hello, Young Lovers.” Even within an extraordinarily rich score, these two beauties stand out as timeless ballads, superbly played here by a lush orchestra conducted by Ted Sperling.
Chalk up another triumph for Lincoln Center Theater.