Thursday, December 23, 2004

Sandy Duncan brings back 'The King and I'

Popular actress coming to Fort Myers in traveling musical

Sandy Duncan sounds husky when she picks up the phone in her hotel room in Green Bay, Wis. Where's the sugar-coated chirp Americans have come to know from Broadway's "Peter Pan" and her appearances on television in "The Hogan Family" and Wheat Thins commercials?

The temperature in northern Wisconsin hovers in the brittle 30s. The weather dries out Duncan's throat, but she has to perform "The King and I" again tonight.

"I like the show, I like the people I'm working with, but I find the schedule daunting," she croaks into the phone.

Warm, sunny Fort Myers sounds pretty good to Duncan. Her run next week at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall marks the end of her stint in the show before Stefanie Powers takes over.

"Each place has its challenges," Duncan said, diplomatically. "In Florida, the humidity makes the wigs frizz."

This won't be her first trip to Southwest Florida. The Tony-nominated actress emceed an awards show for young performers here in 2001 — and served as grand marshal of the Edison Festival of Light parade on the same trip. Last season, she performed at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples.

"Anyone who works in live theater has been to Florida a lot," Duncan said. "There's more theater and more opportunities for performing than any other state. It's sort of the second New York down there."

More work is being staged outside than inside New York City, she said, because Broadway shows aim for tourists, not theatergoers.

Since June, Duncan has been the one playing tourist, though, traveling around the country as the "I" in "The King and I."

For the uninitiated, that's Anna, the British widow hired to tutor the horde of children sired by the King of Siam (now called Thailand). The perennially popular 1951 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein features songs such as "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers" and "Shall We Dance."

Set in 1860s Bangkok, the show deals with clashing cultures and egos, as the King and Anna fall in love despite his stubbornness and her independence.

The current production tries to freshen the musical's appeal to modern audiences by emphasizing the realities of the story.

"It's not just this precious little operetta," Duncan said. "If the music takes you out of the story it's wrong, particularly for audiences today. When these things were originally done, the acting was larger than life. These were the tunes of the day people wanted to hear. Today we've heard them all. You have to engage the audience in other ways."

When Anna and the king finally waltz together in the second act, the audience inevitably bursts into applause.

"That scene is the culmination of them talking at each other and about each other for two hours," Duncan said. "It's the first time they really touch and make contact on a romantic level. That's a big release."

Equally striking is the ball gown Anna wears in that scene, a floor-length satin dress supported by hoops.

Although some of her costumes weigh 30 pounds, 58-year-old Duncan said the most challenging part of doing the show is the rigorous routine of performing night after night. In Fort Myers, she dons the heavy couture for eight shows from Tuesday through Sunday.

"It's pretty grueling to do for seven months," she said. "By Sunday, you're tanked. I've never done this before. I've toured for short periods — a long time ago. In those days, you'd stay a month in a city."

Still, "The King and I" holds a special place in Duncan's life. She made her professional debut at 12 as one of the Thai princesses in a Dallas production of the musical. Back then, she was primarily a dancer; she learned to sing and act later.

"It never occurred to me one day I would play Anna," she said.

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