Popular Japanese movie star Ken Watanabe had never sung or danced onstage until he landed a role in the Broadway musical The King and I, but his performance as the supreme ruler of Siam earned him a Tony nomination. He didn’t win – that distinction went to Michael Cerveris of Fun Home – but during his three-month stint on the show, which did win the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical, the 55-year-old actor was able to expand his range.
July 12 was Watanabe’s last appearance in what was his American stage debut, and while he’s had several English-speaking parts in Hollywood films – his most notable being his stoic portrayal of Lord Katsumoto in The Last Samurai, for which he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor – there was still concern about his English pronunciation.
“We’re working with Ken all the time,” Bartlett Sher, director of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, told The New York Times. “But in the show, the king struggles with his speech. With Ken, you really feel that you have someone from an ancient kingdom meeting someone from the West for the first time. You feel the reality of that.”
The reality is that although his English is said to have improved since the Lincoln Center Theater production opened on April 16, he was still a bit hard to understand in early July. There were moments when Watanabe’s English was a puzzlement to the audience, so it’s probably a good thing that “Puzzlement” was the only song he had to sing. (He’s a great actor, but let’s be honest, there are no Grammy nominations in his future.)
Despite the occasional language difficulties, Watanabe was powerful yet playful as King Mongkut, a monarch who hires British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (beautifully played by the elegant Kelli O’Hara, winner of the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical) to educate his many wives and children. He was fierce when carrying out his regal duties, yet displayed tenderness toward his children and playfulness toward Anna. He even showed a penchant for comedy, especially during scenes that highlighted the language barrier – possibly both onstage and in real life – between Watanabe’s and O’Hara’s characters, punctuated by the repeated “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.”
On July 14 Jose Llana replaced Watanabe, and in turn Llana will be replaced by Hoon Lee on September 29. They will lead the cast in the show’s run through January 3, 2016. Again, O’Hara is splendid, as is the King’s “head wife,” Lady Thiang, played to perfection by Ruthie Ann Miles, who has the Tony for Best Featured Actress to prove it. Her rendition of “Something Wonderful” will bring tears to your eyes. Other songs are sure to delight, especially “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?”
From the moment Anna’s boat docks in Scene 1, the set makes full use of the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s thrust stage. The dazzling costumes designed by Catherine Zuber, the production’s fourth Tony winner, give us a distinct flavor of the King’s Eastern and Anna’s Western cultures.
It’s a large company of more than fifty performers, including several talented and adorable children, and the ensemble is filled with Japanese and Asian American dancers who shine with choreography based on Jerome Robbins’s work in the original Rodgers and Hammerstein production from the early 1950s.
Even without Watanabe in the cast, The King and I is must-see and must-hear theater because of its phenomenal acting, and singing, and dancing . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.