Friday, May 22, 2015

New Broadway Reviews—"The King and I" and "Wolf Hall: Parts 1 and 2"

The King and I
Book & lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Richard Rodgers
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Opened April 16, 2015
Lincoln Center Theater @ Vivian Beaumont, 65th Street & Broadway, New York, NY

Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2
Adapted by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel's novels
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Opened April 9, 2015
Winter GardenTheatre, 1634 Broadway between 50th & 51st Streets, New York, NY

Watanabe and O'Hara in The King and I (photo: Paul Kolnik)
Best known as the 1956 movie starring the immortal Yul Brynner, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I  has brilliantly melodic songs that do the heavy lifting of creating character and moving the story forward: "Getting to Know You," "I Whistle a Happy Tune" and "Shall We Dance?" are only a few numbers in what's among Broadway's greatest hit parades.

That director Bartlett Sher and actress Kelli O'Hara already collaborated on a terrific Rodgers & Hammerstein show—South Pacific, at Lincoln Center in 2008—boded well for their reunion on another R&H spectacular. In 1996, a worthy King and I Broadway revival featured a smashing turn by Donna Murphy as Anna Leonowens, the English schoolteacher who arrives in the kingdom of Siam to teach the many school-age children of the brusque King, robustly played by Lou Diamond Phillips. But as good as Murphy was (she won a Tony), that production didn't have the internal coherence of the current one. 

Bartlett Sher's directing is simultaneously expansive and intimate, once again (as in South Pacific) using the problematic Vivian Beaumont stage to great effect. From the opening scene of Anna and son Louis arriving to scenes of Anna teaching her charges and the climactic dance scene, Sher's sure hand effortlessly balances the musical-comedy tropes that underlie the serious, humane drama that's the core of the show, with help from his stellar collaborators: the fluidly sliding sets of Michael Yeargan, the spot-on costumes of Catherine Zuber, the magical lighting of Donald Holder, the peerless sound design of Scott Lehrer and the fine orchestrations of Robert Russell Bennett. 

The magisterial acting, which runs from the two leads to the delightfully individual children (played by the most talented pack of kids on a Broadway stage) begins with Ruthie Ann Miles, who brightened the otherwise forgettable Here Lies Love; she brings emotional intensity to the King's wife Lady Thiang, especially during her dazzling rendition of "Something Wonderful." As the King's concubine Tuptim, Ashley Park splendidly displays young love's crushing disappointment, especially in her and, as Tuptim's beloved Lun Tham, Conrad Ricamora's haunting duet, "I Have Dreamed." 

The King himself is played by Ken Watanabe with a brawny physicality and compelling charisma that easily overcomes his often garbled English and less than musical bearing. Watanabe also has an undeniable chemistry with Kelli O'Hara, whose Anna is another in this glowing actress's growing gallery of indelible characters. Like Nellie in South Pacific, O'Hara's Anna is more than the sum of its parts; her intelligent and nuanced portrayal stands comparison with Murphy's earlier triumph.

Miles and Leonard in Wolf Hall (photo: Johan Persson)
Hilary Mantel turned Wolf Hall into a cottage industry in three media—her original novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies; a six-hour televsion mini-series recently on PBS; and two full-length plays currently on Broadway. I haven't read the books, but found it fascinating how the TV series and plays tell the same engrossing story of British royal history—with Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell and Anne Boleyn—in varying ways, just like earlier notables from Shakespeare (whose All Is True was a collaboration with John Fletcher) to the Showtime series The Tudors.

Mike Poulton's adaptations, credible history and thrilling drama, concern Oliver Cromwell, who begins as Cardinal Woolsey's right-hand man, then soon becomes—after Woolsey is convicted of treason and executed—King Henry's must trusted advisor. Cromwell famously fashions a way for the King to head the Church of England (and be excommunicated by the Pope) when Henry divorces wife Katharine because she bore him no male heirs and marries Anne Boleyn. Of course, Anne also only gives him a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I), so her head too is soon on the chopping block, as Henry makes way for his latest conquest, Jane Seymour.

Even if it sometimes plays like a high-class soap opera—the occasionally soaring dialogue never approaches Shakespearean poetry—Wolf Hall is a sweeping historical pageant created by Jeremy Herrin, with valuable assists from Christopher Oram's elegant costumes and sets, Paule Constable and David Plater's lighting and Stephen Warbeck's appropriate music.

The actors are exemplary throughout, led by Peter Eyre's sardonic Woolsey, Nathaniel Parker's hearty Henry, Lydia Leonard's intelligent Anne and Ben Miles' dynamically engaged and aggressively caustic Cromwell. Compare Miles' Cromwell with Mark Rylance's on TV for a textbook case of how actors can play the same role totally differently yet equally compellingly. Rylance was quietly forceful while Miles literally stalks the stage; in Herrin's most theatrical invention, Cromwell is nearly always onstage prowling from one side to the other as he encounters new sets of antagonists.

Unlike the TV version, onstage Cromwell is often bedeviled by Woolsey's ghost, with whom he discusses important matters not unlike the soliloquies of Shakespearean drama; contrarily, a most pressing matter like Anne's execution, which is only alluded to onstage, is presented in all its drama and urgency in the mini-series.

These onstage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies definitely stand on their own as brilliantly illuminated dramatizations of one of the most familiar, but endlessly fascinating, stories in English history.

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