We will have to stop thinking of Kelli O'Hara as the eternal ingénue one of these days. On April 16, Broadway's Golden Girl officially reached Jack Benny's perennial age of 39 and marked the spot with a properly mature and affecting performance — that of Anna Leonowens, the I of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I.
Gertrude Lawrence was 52 when she originated the role in 1951, opposite a force of nature named Yul Brynner, and played it for the last 18 months of her life. Deborah Kerr was 34 when she sang the part (with Marni Nixon's voice) to King Yul in the 1956 film. And Rise Stevens was 51 when she and Darren McGavin performed The King and I at the State Theatre, the very first time a musical played Lincoln Center.
A half-century later, it has returned to Lincoln Center, rather lavishly revived with an authentic Asian on the Siamese throne — Ken Watanabe, that splendid Japanese actor who stole "The Last Samurai" from Tom Cruise and was Oscar-nominated for it.
Director Bartlett Sher, who likes to outfit O'Hara with international leading men, credits Bernard Telsey Casting with discovering Paulo Szot for South Pacific but takes a bow himself for finding Watanabe in a Clint Eastwood movie called "Letters From Iwo Jima." "Ken was the colonel who headed the forces at Iwo Jima, and he had such a royal bearing," the director remembered. "I met him in Vancouver while he was making 'Godzilla.' I said, 'We need a king,' and we had this great talk. For him to come from the world of Japanese cinema to New York to do this part is incredible."
As he headed out of the Vivian Beaumont to cross the courtyard to the after-party at Avery Fisher Hall, Watanabe had the vague look of a man who had made it to the top of Everest — several Everests, in fact: "Everything is first time," the actor relayed in carefully chosen words. "First American play. First play in English. First musical."
Unlike his Anna and even his Lady Thiang (Ruthie Ann Miles), Watanabe admitted that he had seen the movie, liked it immensely and was abundantly aware of — on top of all the other worries that he had to contend with — Brynner's lock on the role.
Somehow, for all these years, neither actress crossed paths with a stage production of The King and I, although Miles did audition with Lady Thiang's big emotional showstopper, "Something Wonderful," and pretty much sealed the deal with it. "What I love about Lady Thiang is that you don't have to have a big loud voice or wave your arms to be powerful," she said. "You can be silent, and you can watch.
"Working with Bart has just been an absolute dream. From the very first day of rehearsals, he has been so open to every idea and every thought that you can share. He has been very open to everything and just soaking up the thoughts of all these people. The cast is more than 40 of us Asians from all different backgrounds."
Sher said that he had no problem with the ethnic mix, having grown up with a Chinese-Hawaiian stepfather. "When I was in the fourth grade, this man named Doug Chung came into our lives, and then suddenly I had a whole family in Hawaii. So when I'm in a community like The King and I rehearsal room, I'm comfortable in that world."
Miles and Conrad Ricamora made their Off-Broadway debuts together in Here Lies Love and won Theatre World Awards for it as Imelda Marcos and Benigno Aquino Jr. Here they are making their Broadway debuts together, but they have no scenes together, and Ricamora is just as ill-fated as the lover of Tuptim (Ashley Park).
"I specialize in characters who die," he quipped glibly, "and now, my character on television [ABC's "How To Get Away With Murder"] has come down with AIDS." Sandy Kennedy, who originated the role of Anna's teenage son, Louis, was in attendance, brimming with memories: "Gertrude Lawrence had been getting sick, but nobody knew how bad it was. Yul Brynner was a bundle of nerves and a bundle of energy. Why wouldn't he be? He was 35, and nobody had ever heard of him and he was playing against Gertrude Lawrence. She was fabulous, and he scared me.
"Tonight was totally euphoric for me. I had this funny feeling of gratitude that everything I remembered had been done so well — differently but so beautifully."
Adam Guettel felt his composer-granddad, Richard Rodgers, would concur: "Kelli was magnificent, and Ken a revelation — tragic, mischievous, loving, very masculine. My grandfather would have particularly loved how subtle — but absolutely clear — their chemistry was, how it built all night. That's the central anchor of the show."