We don’t have an American troupe comparable to the U.K.’s National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company to officially carry the dual burden of fostering new work while reinvestigating the classic repertory. But increasingly Lincoln Center Theatre acts like a serious candidate for the mantle. Its two smaller houses, the Mitzi Newhouse below ground and the tiny Claire Tow above, consistently show off some of the best new work by young and established playwrights from Ayad Akhtar to Sarah Ruhl and John Guare. And while there aren’t enough new shows on the mainstage Vivian Beaumont Theatre — it’s one of the most daunting spaces in the country and it’s an expensive house to produce in — when a new production bows there, it’s often a beauty: Recent offerings like Guare’s A Free Man Of Color and James Lapine’s adaptation of Moss Hart’s theater memoir Act One were challenging, sumptuously produced works that none could call easy programming.
And for the sheer pleasure of celebrating the American musical-theater canon, I think no space has been as welcoming as the Beaumont — from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes with Patti LuPone in 1987, to the two Rodgers and Hammerstein touchstones, Carousel, in 1994 (a London import, to be sure), and South Pacific, in 2008, all superbly mounted and major hits with audiences. Now comes The King And I, in one of the most elegantly beautiful and beautifully sung productions I’ve ever seen, and the Beaumont looks like a living treasure chest for a director with the right vision and a company that can command a vast space and make it feel like your living room.
The director is Bartlett Sher and his stars are Kelli O’Hara — both returning after the South Pacific triumph — and, in his American stage debut, Ken Watanabe. Sher and his collaborator in dance Christopher Gattelli honor the originators of these shows while breathing fresh life into them. South Pacific opened with a knockout coup de théâtre that had a purpose, which was to restore the Broadway orchestra to a place it rarely holds in the era of synthesized, over-amplified instrumentation. As if to top himself, Sher does something more eye-popping at the beginning of The King And I that I won’t give away but which accomplishes something similar for the importance of magic and beauty in the presentation. It’s a real gasper.
The King and I still manages to shock with its catalogue of hits that just seems to pour out from Hammerstein’s adaptation of Margaret Landon’s Anna And The King of Siam: “I Whistle A Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting To Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” “Shall We Dance?” There are numbers that seem to have come from the very different minds of Lerner and Loewe, particularly “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?” a song Eliza Doolittle might have sung to Henry Higgins. And of course there’s the extraordinary Act II ballet, The Small House Of Uncle Thomas, the Jerome Robbins masterpiece and here ingeniously recreated by Gattelli.
O’Hara is supremely comfortable in these R&H roles of independent-minded women in extraordinary predicaments, whether Ensign Nellie Forbush or Anna Leonowens. Her singing seems effortless and her Anna is determined yet tender; watch how she pursues her quest for her own residence to share with her son, against the King’s wishes: They are a match. Watanabe, soon to be seen in Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, is strong, sexy and bewildered in a role forever owned by Yul Brynner. It takes a long time for this King and Anna to generate real electricity, but when it comes, in “Shall We Dance?” it’s shiver-inducing. There’s one quibble to be made, and it isn’t a small one: Watanabe is all but impossible to understand, his English so heavily accented I fear that the 35 customers who don’t already know the show will find this a barrier.
Ruthie Ann Miles is spectacular as the complicated wife number one, Lady Thiang, as are Ashley Park and Conrad Nicamora as the doomed young lovers.
Unlike the enjoyably blingy Australian revival that was Broadway’s last visit from The King And I (with Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips), this production exudes class. Michael Yeagan has dressed the stage and much of the theater with elegant purple and gold hangings and minimal but authentic looking set pieces, lit to a burnishment by Donald Holder. Catherine Zuber has a lot of fun with Anna’s hoop skirts and the countless outfits for children and members of the court. It’s all a feast for the eyes as much as for the ears.
Austin Pendleton has contributed so much to New York theater — as actor, director, mentor, teacher, thinker and new-works advocate — that any detraction from his work seems puny. But as director, he can be maddeningly inconsistent, especially with the classics. So while he triumphed earlier this season with Stephen Adly Giurgis’ terrific new play Between Riverside And Crazy, the less said about his current production of Hamlet, with Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine, Night Moves) as the Melancholy Dane, the better. It’s mounted at the essential Classic Stage Company, a jewel box theater in the East Village. A multitiered wedding cake oversees the proceedings, which seems to be set in an East Village lounge where the actors, many doubling roles, perch at tables or on couches when not involved in the action. Constance Hoffman’s costumes emphasize the directorial conceit, it being a now-typical mishmash of Edwardian formal and contemporary garb. Oddly, both Gertrude (the great Penelope Allen, welcome in her return) and Ophelia (Lisa Joyce, one of our most accomplished young actresses) remain in the same gowns throughout.
Sarsgaard, whether by his own purpose or pushed by the director, plays Hamlet as dim of wit and halting of speech. There’s no depth of feeling between him and Horatio, let alone his mom or Ophelia. It’s all so languorous and sloppy that by the time the stage is littered with bodies — silence, finally! — we can only welcome Fortinbras with a quick salute — and a quicker exit.