This is the absolutely last farewell tour of Yul Brynner's "King and I," according to all published reports, and the Warner Theatre has claimed him for three weeks. There is certain sadness to this finality, for it is a unique characterization in a classic, old-fashioned American musical.
When Brynner opened in the original production in 1951, he was the newcomer and Gertrude Lawrence was the established star. Now, 33 years and 4,300 performances later, he is the king of the mountain as well as the show. He is like a rock who anchors this musical, which like others of its breed is always on the verge of turning into sparkle dust. The genius of his performance -- and it must be some kind of genius to maintain a character this long -- is its simplicity. There is not a superfluous expression nor a vague gesture. And if at times the arms on hips posture, shining dome and fierce expression remind one of Mr. Clean, it should be remembered that Brynner was there first.
That Brynner's strength throws the double-lead equation slightly out of whack is not so much his fault as the producer's, who chose to cast the respectable but unknown Mary Beth Peil in the role of Anna. As the saying goes, as an actress, she sings beautifully. Her Anna is prissy and prim, and when she sings "Hello Young Lovers," she is about as moving as if she were singing about her boat trip to Siam.
Indeed, the primary weakness of this otherwise lavish and faithful production is that the cast was chosen for their voices rather than their acting ability. Perhaps as a result, in this re-viewing the music strikingly outdistances other elements of the show, remaining fresh and lovely where the book seems at times overbearingly stilted. Rodgers and Hammerstein, filtering their Western brilliance through a quaint perception of Oriental culture, produced some wonderful songs, which call for the operatic training these singers have.
Despite its having been on the road for three years, the production happily shows few signs of wear and tear. The handful of occidental extras are intrusive, and the static in the sound system was, one hopes, merely a problem of opening night. But the costumes shine like exotic silks, and the sets are holding up well.
It is strange how this story of a Western and Eastern culture clash seems quite dated in a world where Asia is no longer a distant world of exotic and mysterious aliens. Although based on a true story of a young English widow who journeyed to Siam to tutor the Crown Prince, it is best looked at as a fairy tale.
Equally unexpected is the continuing vitality of the famous Jerome Robbins ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," a pseudo-Siamese interpretation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which takes up a good part of the second act under the pretense of an after-dinner performance for visiting British dignitaries. The stylized dance, heavily influenced by several schools of Asian dance but organized into an American story line, is a classic of its kind, and beautifully performed here by Kathy Lee Brynner and Rebecca West.
This show has proved to be so popular that it's one of those called "critic proof." It is virtually an institution, but in this case it'll be shutting down soon, so see it while you can.
"The King and I," music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, produced and directed by Mitch Leigh, choreography by Jerome Robbins, reproduced by Rebecca West, sets by John Jay Moore, costumes by Stanley Simmons, lights by Ruth Roberts.
With Yul Brynner, Mary Beth Peil, Patricia Welch, Irma-Estel LaGuerre, Sal Provenza, Edward Crotty, Araby Abaya, Jeffrey Bryan Davis, Kathy Lee Brynner, Jae Woo Lee, Rebecca West, Patricia Weber, Yvette Laura Martin, Burt Edwards and Jonathan Farwell. At the Warner Theatre through Dec. 23.