From the second I entered the Neil Simon Theater and saw the boxes decorated as if they were part of an Eastern temple and the stage framed by elegant, regal, shimmeringly red elephants I knew this would not be an ordinary revival of "The King and I."
When I found myself choking back tears, I knew it was an extraordinary revival so exquisitely designed, so intensely, freshly performed it has the aura of a new show.
"The King and I," the story of a 19th-century Siamese tyrant and Anna, a testy, liberalizing English schoolteacher, has in recent years fallen under a cloud. The king's attitude toward women, for example, is hardly "correct," and the show's take on Asia can be seen as condescending.
What director Christopher Renshaw stresses in both cases is not what we regard as myopic 19th-century thinking, but 19th-century people trying to get beyond what they've been "carefully taught."
Neither of these matters was an issue when the movie was made 40 years ago, and the film may have contributed to people's misgivings about the material. Yul Brynner's portrayal of the king certainly gave fuel to tetchy feminists.
Lou Diamond Phillips, on the other hand, has a disarming boyishness. Even his voice, a tenor rather than a commanding bass, makes the king seem less a hardened autocrat than a man still growing, still learning.
A crucial component for playing the king is expressive eyebrows. These Phillips has in abundance, essential for the role's many double takes. He is a marvelous, resourceful actor, having found ways to make the king an irritant to Anna without similarly irritating New Age, hypersensitive audiences.
As Anna, Donna Murphy is elegance itself, which softens the often abrasive role. She sometimes begins her songs speaking the lyrics. Then, when she moves from her clipped speaking voice into her deep, gorgeous soprano the transition seems effortless and natural.
Phillips and Murphy spar beautifully, so when they finally embrace on "Shall We Dance," it's deeply satisfying, perfectly in line with Hammerstein's subtle way of handling their reconciliation.
The supporting cast is magnificent. I have never heard "Something Wonderful" sung as radiantly as it is by Taewon Kim as Lady Thiang. Jose Llana and Joohee Choi are superb as the young lovers. Randall Duk Kim makes the king's fierce assistant a full, rich character. The Siamese children are unusually adorable.
Brian Thomson's sets are a wondrous blend of Asian restraint and Broadway sumptuousness, as are Roger Kirk's costumes. The score is sensitively conducted and Jerome Robbins' dances are splendid.
Everything about this revival bespeaks consummate intelligence and craft. Renshaw has directed opera in Australia, and the Met ought to snap him up immediately, but that would deprive the theater of a major talent.
I have always considered "The King and I" one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's lesser works. Renshaw convinced me it's their masterpiece.
So far revisionism has not very much affected the vast empire of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Generally speaking, American revivals have treated the original productions with reverence, far too much reverence.
Then last year Britain's pushy Royal National Theater and its director, Richard Eyre, inspired a complete and wonderful makeover to "Carousel" for Lincoln Center, and now it's just as sensationally the turn of "The King and I."
And this time it's not the British teaching us about our musical heritage but the Australians. A lavish, luscious and triumphant staging of "The King and I" arrived at the Neil Simon Theater last night, and proved that the saga of love, slavery and colonialism definitely has a life after Yul Brynner.
This is an eye-opener, and not simply for its spectacle, which is indeed sumptuous. The original production suffered from the deadly hand of director John Van Druten, and for 40 or so years that lassitude seemed to have trickled down to all subsequent productions.
The only non-R&H aspects of the show that really worked were Jerome Robbins' extraordinary dances and Brynner's role of the King. It was, to some extent, a score in search of a staging. And the Australians - a somewhat Asian-oriented nation, after all - have done it. With the massive help of a great Broadway prima-donna, Donna Murphy.
The concept of the production originated at Australia's Adelaide Festival in 1991, and the same Australian team, headed by a British-born director, Christopher Renshaw, is responsible for this restudied Broadway stunner. As before, the Robbins choreography has been retained (this is really as much a part of the show's fabric as the book, music and lyrics) but the cast is all American.
Brian Thornson's spectacular settings - all gold leaf and elephants - look like the Thai restaurant of your dreams (come to think of it, so does the real Bangkok), and they are superbly lit by Nigel Levings.
As for Roger Kirk's grandiloquent yet authentic-looking costumes let it be noted that Anna's plain ballroom crinoline gets a small ovation on entrance, and manages to make "Shall We Dance" into a fascinating trio!
Renshaw's staging is what the show itself might call "scientific." From first to last it gently stresses the ethnic and religious background of this 19th-century Siamese court and, perhaps even more important, emphasizes the score's operatic style.
This is not just Broadway's view of Oriental glitz and glitter, but something oddly much more in keeping with the basic Rodgers & Hammerstein sound and fury previously slightly obscured. It is like a canvas cleaned.
The Robbins dances, staged by Susan Kikuchi, fit perfectly into the new version, and Lar Lubovitch's musical staging is both impeccable and tactful. But I was surprised that although Robert Russell Bennett is rightly credited for the original orchestrations, no mention is made of Trude Rittmann, who composed the music for "Small House of Uncle Thomas," that cleverest of all Broadway ballets.
For the most part the production has been beautifully cast. As the starry English governess helping the despotic King to modernize his realm against his worser wishes, the resplendent Donna Murphy is matchless, both in her singing and acting. To my regret I missed the original Anna, Gertrude Lawrence, but of the rest the only portrayal to come close to this is Angela Lansbury in 1977.
Unfortunately, Lou Diamond Phillips - very much a diamond in the rough and hardly "the wonder of Siam" - while trying valiantly, is helplessly overshadowed by both Murphy and the memory of you-know-who. The obvious star here should have been Ben Kingsley (at whatever cost!), for on the recent Julie Andrews complete recording he seems better than Brynner himself.
But the rest of the cast is terrific, from the adorable (not too adorable!) children up. Some of the most memorable songs are given to Lady Thiana (Taewon Kim), who has the show's key number, "Something Wonderful," and the victimized lover, Tuptim (Joohee Choi) and both are splendid.
All in all, this is a "King and I" and a Rodgers and Hammerstein staging for the 21st century.
Taking the story of Anna Leonowens, the adventurous yet very Victorian English governess who tamed the exotic King of Siam, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d created a musical play as joyously all-American as anything they ever wrote. It's beside the point that "The King and I" is set in the Far East and has nothing to do with America. As expressed by its charming score, the show's spirit is that of an idealized 19th-century America far removed from the Civil War, robber barons, the Industrial Revolution and the winning of the West through the expropriation of other people's property.
Anna may be English and no more historically accurate than Robin Hood's Maid Marian. Yet she has the fortitude and wit of those legendary frontier women who drove covered wagons across the wilderness, bewitched and outwitted the heathens en route, then found gold mines in California backyards. "The King and I" is romantic, clear-eyed and highly moral. Though ever- optimistic, it doesn't deny intimations of darkness; it successfully absorbs them.
It's also a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, which is not always evident in the new production staged by Christopher Renshaw, an Australian director who has worked in England and is making his New York debut. Donna Murphy stars as Anna and Lou Diamond Phillips as the King. This latest "King and I" might look like a million dollars as a regional production; on Broadway, where it opened last night at the Neil Simon Theater, it's a disappointment. The score remains enchanting but, somewhere along the line, there has been a serious failure of the theatrical imagination.
Su'h a mixed response is nothing new for "The King and I," which is probably the most critic-proof of all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows. When it first arrived here in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, the musical play had an imposing heritage to live up to, following as it did "Oklahoma!," "Carousel" and "South Pacific." Reviewers were polite but discreetly pained. As much 's they hated to say it, or so they seemed to write, "The King and I" didn't quite measure up. They were correct when they pointed out that Hammerstein's book, adapted from Margaret Landon's novel, "Anna and the King of Siam," was sweet though lacking a strong narrative. But they were dead wrong when they took a similarly dim view of the music, which is packed with riches that give definition to the show's backbone.
"The King and I," now possibly the most beloved work in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, went on to play 1,246 performances. This new production might not be so lucky.
As far as memory serves, the revival is faithful to the Broadway original, though the 1956 film version, with Brynner and Deborah Kerr, remains more vividly in the mind.
The show's highlights still are apparent: the King's presentation of his children to Anna, a scene that begins in stately fashion and quickly disintegrates, thus to build into a great comic sequence of immense heart; the gorgeous Jerome Robbins ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," narrated with subversive hu'ility by the King's beautiful slave Tuptim, and the "Shall We Dance?" number, which, near the end of the show, becomes an exuberant expression of the unrecognized sexual feelings Anna and the King have for each other. Has there ever been a polka of such sublime high spirits and emotional complexity?
These isolated moments of wonderment soothe even as they increase one's impatience with the commonplace treatment of the rest of the material.
It's typical of the new production that virtually every number is delivered with the singer turning away from the other performers to face the audience head-on. You might think you were at the Metropolitan Opera, where singers have to project into a huge hall without benefit of electronic amplification. Yet everyone on the stage at the Neil Simon sounds to be as fully wired as a home entertainment unit. This sort of presentational style not only looks tacky, but it also disconnects the audience, stopping the narrative in its tracks.
It's especially damaging to the way the audience perceives the show's sketchy subplot about the rebellious Tuptim (Joohee Choi) and her secret lover, Lun Tha (Jose Llana).
Both singers have beautifully trained voices, well suited to the demands of what should be their heartbreaking duets: "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." Yet it's difficult to pay much attention to their d'omy fate when, every time they rev up to sing, each turns away from the other to romance the audience.
Taewon Kim, who plays Lady Thiang, the King's senior wife, also is directed to deliver her big number, "Something Wonderful," in the same placid, concert hall manner.
Ms. Murphy and Mr. Phillips are not so inhibited. They are giving performances as true and as big as their talents and stage personalities allow. If they don't yet play together with much warmth and excitement, that may come with time. Both appear to be hard workers.
As anyone who saw "Passion" already knows, Ms. Murphy has the kind of large, glorious voice not often heard in a relatively conventional Broadway show, certainly not one with 'aterial of the richness and variety of "Hello, Young Lovers," "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?"
She has a commanding presence, though not a particularly light touch, even if her touch is lighter than that of anyone else in the show. Most important, she has class.
Mr. Phillips, a good film actor who also writes and directs, is now a stage performer of serious ambitions, which are evident in his performance as the King.
Though he looks somewhat young for the role, he has a sort of defensive authority when he strides across the stage, or stands, glowering, with his feet spread, or talk-sings the numbers so long identified with Brynner. If he often appears to be imitating Brynner, that comes with the territory. The King is not a role that invites many other interpretations.
In addition to overseeing the original Robbins dances, Lar Lubovitch has choreographed two additional numbers for the entire company. The dancing is spirit'd and, in the case of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," a near show-stopper.
The physical production succeeds in appearing to be both gaudy and threadbare at the same time. The show looks as if it had been designed to tour. Brian Thomson's Siamese-accented sets are efficient, depending mostly on some giant cutouts of red elephants that frame the stage, and a couple of grandly swathed curtains within the stage space itself. They help to define playing ar'as identified by gilded thrones, gilded Buddhas and other assorted props that can be rolled on and off the stage with dispatch.
Roger Kirk designed the costumes, which do look rich.
The best way to enjoy this "King and I": lower your expectations.
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.