THE KING AND I; music by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Richard Rodgers; book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; based on; the novel "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon; produced and directed by Mitch Leigh; choreography by Jerome Robbins, reproduced by Rebecca West; scenery by John Jay Moore; costumes by Stanley Simmons, based on original costumes by Irene Sharaff; musical direction by Lawrence Brown. With Yul Brynner, Patricia Marand, Hye-Young Choi, Richard White, Patricia Welch, Morton Banks, Ernest Graves, David Chan, Joe Favor, Michael Kermoyan and Alison Sheehan. At the Warner Theater through March 15.
No one could possibly live up to the advance promotion for Yul Brynner in "The King and I" -- except Yul Brynner in "The King and I." b
With his feet dramatically parted, his trunk thrust forward, his elbows pointed to either side, and his head and shoulders cocked gently but proudly to the rear, he looks like a practitioner of some ancient and devastating form of Oriental wrestling, never witnessed by Western eyes, which he is ready to demonstrate on anyone or anything reckless enough to question his territorial imperative. And just when you think he's going to attack, he breaks into an expression of utter bafflement, or a high shriek of a laugh, or an ever-so-slow burn.
There is not a great deal of subtlety or delicacy to Brynner's performance.
Every gesture is rendered with child-like extravagance, for he is playing a character who has lived a whole life without ever once worrying that he might hurt someone else's feelings. That character is, of course, the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which opened last night at the Warner Theatre.
One way or another, almost everyone knows the story of Anna Leonowens, the teacher who went to Siam in the 1860s to teach the King's children, grappled with her own English prejudices against such habits as polygamy and bowing at ground-level, and wound up giving the King a crash course in 19th-century liberalism. This is one of those shows people feel as if they've seen, even if, technically, they haven't. But Brynner's craft and, at 60 or so, his astonishing physical vigor make "The King and I" a completely fresh experience (in marked contrast to the current revivals of "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady," in which Richard Burton and Rex Harrison are offering dim glimpses of their original performances).
The production of which Brynner is part, although choppy in places, is basically a straightforward reversion to the old rules of musical comedy. Everyone who has to sing can truly sing -- which means to the rear of the house with a minimal amount of amplification. The staging is basic, with the songs delivered downstage, facing the audience head-on. The orchestrations are carefully arranged to support rather than compete with the words.
The latest Anna, Patricia Marand, possesses a particularly full and pleasing voice. Unfortunately, she also possesses a rather limiting store of stock gestures and postures. She loosens up often enough to convince you she could be much stronger and more moving in the role than she is, however, and since the production is new, rapid improvement is possible.
Otherwise, producer/director Mitch Leigh (also, in another life, the composer of "Man of La Mancha") has done well in the casting department. Hye-Young Choi brings great poignant dignity to the role of Lady Thiang, the "head wife," and rises magnificently to the occasion of "Something Wonderful," in which she sings of the King, "He will not always say what you will have him say, but now and then he'll say something wonderful." (What lyric, by the way, has ever conveyed more about two characters simultaneously?)
The kids are as cute as you could posisbly hope for -- or maybe it is Brynner who makes them seem that way, as he plays eye-contact games with his little princes and princesses from the moment of their grand entrance in "The March of the Siamese Children."
For all its old-fashioned qualities, "The King and I" dared to be revolutionary in one respect: It dealt with a man and woman in a non-romantic relationship. But Hammerstein could not quite bring himself to do without love entirely, so he gave us Lun Tha and Tuptim, the secret lovers of the court, and two absurdly incongruous (albeit beautiful) love songs, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." Richard White sings these so loudly that he seems to be trying to deafen us into accepting their implausibility -- and he almost succeeds.