Tuesday, April 14, 2015

New York Theatre Review: The King and I

My husband and I spent this past weekend in New York City, enjoying Broadway shows, fabulous cuisine, interesting shopping, ethnic festivals, and the wonderful fascination of the broad range of humanity that is NYC. Among our adventures were three completely different theatrical performances: the revival of The King and I (which is still in previews, officially opening on April 16) at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, the revival of On the Town at the Lyric Theater, and the new Radio City Spring Spectacular at (naturally) Radio City Music Hall. I’m no professional reviewer, although I am a theatre fan with plenty of experience being in the audience of both amateur and professional productions, as well as performance and backstage experience with amateur and semi-professional productions, so this is really not so much of a “review” as it is a “let me tell you about what I saw!” kind of thing. I’ll begin with The King and I, and over the next few days I’ll cover the other two shows.

One of the most exciting things about Broadway shows is that the theater itself often becomes a part of the performance. Broadway houses can be completely transformed to create the atmosphere of a show, drawing the audience into the world of the production even before the first note of the overture sounds. The King and I definitely took advantage of this. Being part of Lincoln Center, it is no surprise that the Vivian Beaumont Theater has a huge, tall stage, with an unusually deep orchestra pit in front of the main stage, which is often built out to form a thrust (sometimes retractable) covering the orchestra pit.

The stage of the Beaumont, showing the thrust built out over the orchestra pit. Note also the bamboo detailing around the proscenium arch, which is echoed in the set pieces upstage. This set was used in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. 

The retractable thrust pulled back to reveal the orchestra during the curtain call of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

The theater design and stage setup for The King and I was quite similar in some ways to the design and setup for South Pacific. The proscenium arch was decorated with tall gilt statues of Buddha and elaborate gilt detailing, and the stage was retracted as the audience entered, revealing the full orchestra pit and braces detailed with gilt matching the proscenium arch. The main part of the stage was hidden behind a tall, dark red and gilt curtain. The curtain was not particularly striking until the overture began and the lighting colors began to change – soft purple, dramatic scarlet, cool blue. The large areas of gold on the curtain reflected the color of the lighting, seeming to change the color of the entire curtain and creating an effect similar to a cyclorama, or “cyc,” which is a white curtain at the far back (or “upstage”) wall that is lit with different colors to create a changing backdrop.

In my opinion, the overture to The King and I is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best. It opens with a huge, crashing, Oriental chord featuring a gong and a gorgeous open fifth in the brasses, which is immediately followed by a shimmering passage with the strings chasing each other up and down the scale. It is immediately clear that we are not in the familiar Western world, but rather in the exotic and mysterious far East. The pattern is repeated several times, separated by dramatic pauses, then transitions into the beautiful sweeping melody of “Something Wonderful,” followed by bits of many other familiar tunes from the well-known score, including, “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and then back to bookend the overture with a final variation on “Something Wonderful,” concluding with another booming gong and a grand chord. It would take a cold, cold heart to listen to that overture without getting a chillbump or two. It was especially exciting to be able to watch the fully-lit orchestra (particularly the percussionist, who was practically choreographed as he leapt between a drum set, timpani, and various other percussion “toys”), and the orchestra took a much-deserved bow at the end of the overture.

As if that weren’t an amazing enough opening, the curtain was then drawn across the stage to reveal a large boat upstage, with its prow facing toward the audience and low mists rising off the “water” behind it. But wait, there’s more: as Anna and Louis make their appearances on the bow, peering toward “Bangkok,” the whole ship moves forward on the stage, sailing through the mist towards the audience. That’s not enough stage magic for you? All right then, as the boat approaches the front of the stage, the entire center section of the stage begins to sail forward into the audience right along with it, covering the orchestra pit and causing a delighted gasp from the entire audience.

The scale of the sets throughout the performance was impressive: when the King entertains his English guests in the large dining hall, a number of huge crystal chandeliers fill the upper part of the stage; during the show-within-the-show of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Buddha appears atop a high pillar of stairs leading to the sky; the King’s quarters are adorned with a huge Buddha statue. 

I read an interview with the costume designer in which she commented that when they were testing her original costume design for Anna’s hoop skirts, which seemed huge in the design room, once they put them on stage, they were dwarfed by the size of the stage and the set, and she had to redesign them to be even larger. 

Speaking of costumes, the costuming of the entire show was breathtaking. Since we were seated high in the balcony, we had brought opera glasses, which allowed us a close-up look at many of the fine details. The King’s first costume was a white-and-gold suit which was stunning enough at a distance, but seen close up, revealed literally thousands of tiny pearls and gold beads encrusting it. Similarly, the headpieces used during “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” were intricately beaded and painted.

Every detail had been carefully designed to create a world unfamiliar to most audience members, to help us identify with Anna’s feelings of being overwhelmed with the opulence of her surroundings and her own sense of foreignness. The costumes helped to create each character long before we saw them interact with each other. Anna’s very formal, buttoned-up dresses and prim hats; Louis’ crisp schoolboy suit, glasses, and hat; the Kralahome’s bare chest and sweeping robe; the King’s gold-encrusted robes; the wives’ dresses, exactly identical save for the colors; the royal children’s gold headpieces and embroidered sashes.

But above and beyond the characters that were created simply by their looks, every single actor brought his or her character to life, developing relationships, creating personalities, revealing social roles. Kelli O’Hara’s Anna showed the vulnerability behind her brave fa├žade by her nervous whistle, her genuine love for her students was evident in her romping and playing with them and in her delighted laughter at their antics, in her compassion for the lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha the audience understands her own love for her late husband, Tom, and her protectiveness of her son, Louis; Ken Watanabe’s King Mongkut showed a very distinct change in demeanor when interacting with Anna, the Kralahome, his children, or his wives, or when alone in his room, revealing both his public confidence as a King and his private doubts as a man, as well as his sense of conflict over western vs. eastern culture and values. The two characters together created a delicious culture and personality clash, beginning in polite frustration, mounting to actual anger, and eventually moving to a silent admission of mutual respect, admiration, and genuine affection as the King gives in to Anna’s demands for a house in exchange for her agreement that “head must not be higher than mine!” as Act I ends with the King – with a slight smirk on his face and a distinct twinkle in his eye – prostrates himself on the floor, forcing Anna to mimic his posture – right down to the smirk and the twinkle.

The charm of the two main characters was matched by many of the minor characters. The King’s eldest son, Prince Chulalongkhorn, is very like his father, right down to the personality clash he has with Anna’s son, Louis. One of my favorite moments for both boys was their rendition of “A Boy’s Puzzlement,” a reprise of the King’s earlier song, in which they admit their own confusion and puzzlement about their parents, and in which they temporarily sympathize with each other, perhaps even becoming friends, but which ends with an inevitable and hilariously teenage “fight” of pushing each other, a delightful reflection of their parents’ affectionate yet challenging relationship.

The King’s Head Wife, Lady Thiang, is a lovely foil to Anna’s relationship with the King. Lady Thiang, although an intelligent woman, is not educated in politics, but she understands and adores her husband, despite – and perhaps because of – his flaws, and she quietly supports him, masterfully guiding him without bruising his fragile ego, recognizing when he needs help from others, and getting him that help. Her gentle subservience contrasts with Anna’s intellectual frankness, as if the women are two sides of the same coin. The King needs both of them: the one to massage his ego and the other to challenge it.

Another foil to Anna is the character of the Kralahome: powerful, intelligent, and politically savvy, but more doubtful of – perhaps even threatened by – western culture than the King. He has little respect for Anna, as she is both a woman and a westerner, but eventually he comes to see that she wants the best for both the King and his beloved country of Siam, and he recognizes that she has a special influence with the King that even he does not. In the end, he is able to humble himself enough to ask for her help, for the sake of his country and his King.

The production is a visually lovely and emotionally moving picture of two cultures coming together, each recognizing that there is beauty and worth in the other, and even seeing that there are flaws in their own. The final scene wraps up the story sadly but beautifully. as the King, on his deathbed, passes the crown to Prince Chulalongkhorn, who announces that his people will no longer be required to prostrate themselves before him "like toads” (a criticism directly from the lips of Anna), but that they will show their respect with proud posture and a western-style bow or curtsy. The King nods in approval, and quietly slips into death with Lady Thiang holding one of his hands and Anna gently taking the other. He has seen - and become – the bridge between his old world and the new world, and he dies knowing that his kingdom will be well served by his son, led by both Anna and the King’s teachings. I, along with most of the audience, smiled through tears as the music swelled and the curtain fell.

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