Lincoln Center Theater's The King and I arrives this spring much like the ship Chow Phya heaves into view of Bangkok on the Vivian Beaumont stage: a majestic vessel of excellent construction, expertly piloted and bringing with it many wonderful things – starting with Kelli O'Hara. What's more, in a year of bland nostalgic revivals, this grand and glorious production gives you hope in the nonprofit stewardship of our theatrical heritage. Artistic revolutions and usurpations have shaken Broadway over the decades, but Rodgers and Hammerstein's timeless lessons about empathy and equality bear repeating.
Anyone doubtful about another look at the 1951 classic (now in its fourth Broadway revival) should note that its message of female empowerment is no less revolutionary to societies in the Middle East than in its setting, Siam (Thailand) in the early 1860s. That realm is ruled by the dictatorial and spoiled but kindly King (Ken Watanabe), who invites the British Anna (O'Hara) to teach English to his several wives and 77 children. He's blithely patriarchal; she stubbornly insists on being treated with respect; a delicate, wary romance slowly flowers between them.
Many of the key players from LCT's equally gorgeous 2008 South Pacific – director Bartlett Sher, costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Michael Yeargan – are back to navigate the politically choppy waters of this material. Because, let's be frank: Although Hammerstein's characterization of the King has pain and pathos in addition to comic bluster, he speaks a pidgin English that few actors can pull off today. Luckily, the Japanese Watanabe shows a man struggling with a foreign tongue. (His accent can be thick, but that adds authenticity.) The 55-year-old Watanabe also cuts an older figure than Lou Diamond Phillips did in the 1996 revival, which adds gravitas as well as humor to his outbursts and temper tantrums.
O'Hara sounds angelic as ever in "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance?" and other numbers – her silky, shimmering soprano a treasure – and the role plays to her strengths: wryness, warmth and quiet dignity. Sher directs her and the rest of an exceptionally good cast – Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang, Ashley Park as unhappy wife Tuptim and Conrad Ricamora as her clandestine lover, Lun Tha – with palpable respect for the material and a care to avoid orientalist humbug.
When we get to the second-act ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," the Siamese version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, you marvel at the sophistication (and welcome strangeness) of Rodgers and Hammerstein's theme: intercultural change and evolution. Nothing is lost in translation; this King and I speaks a universal language of love.