‘The King and I’ Theater Review: Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara Make a Royal Pairing

Right from the opening song “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” we know we’re in the same confident hands that gave us Lincoln Center’s “South Pacific” seven years ago

It has been seven years since Lincoln Center Theater presented Bartlett Sher’s definitive staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Now comes Sher’s take on “The King and I,” which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, and while it’s a less demanding work than “South Pacific,” Sher once again reveals the musical’s own enormous qualities without imposing an arbitrary interpretation.

This is not always the case with Sher’s direction next door at the Metropolitan Opera, where his productions (especially his “Tales of Hoffmann” and “Le comte Ory” ) can come off fussy and unfocused. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take Sher and LCT seven years to reunite on another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic or even “Flower Drum Song,” which, as problematic R&H shows go, begs for Sher’s deft touch.

“The King and I” is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s more durable shows, having clocked in no fewer than four revivals in the last 40 years.

There’s no sea change in interpretation needed to make “The King and I” work, and certainly there’s nothing comparable here to what Sher did with “Happy Talk” in his “South Pacific,” wherein he turned a sunny little ditty into a mother’s sales pitch to pimp her own daughter. But right from the opening of “The King and I,” we know we’re in the same confident hands when the glorious Kelli O’Hara takes the stage to sing the opening number, “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”

Like “Happy Talk,” “Happy Tune” can come off as one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s more treacly songs. It’s anything but sentimental as staged here.  When Anna and her young son (the very fine Jake Lucas) leave the deck of the “Chow Phya” to enter the port of Bangkok — Michael Yeargan’s sets are breathtakingly romantic — “Happy Tune” becomes an ode to xenophobia. In fact, if anything in this revival shakes up our preconceptions of “The King and I,” it’s that Anna must undergo almost as much re-education as the king (Ken Watanabe). Plus, O’Hara’s Anna is nearly as headstrong as he.

I vividly remember Yul Brynner in the 1985 Broadway revival. He passed away only a few months after that production closed, at age 65. Even so, he was the sexiest man alive on stage and simply exuded strength — so much strength, in fact, that a major flaw of “The King and I” has always been the king’s quick death after Anna prevents him from punishing the slave girl Tuptim (Ashley Park in great voice) for wanting to escape his palace.

That so-called flaw evaporates in Sher’s staging. Watanabe doesn’t dominate the show like Brynner. He’s regal, but he’s also far more vulnerable, and as performed here, he wills his own death, almost as if a suicide.

Seven years, it’s too long to wait for another reunion of Rodgers and Hammerstein, LTC, and Sher.