Friday, January 07, 2005

Anna and the King reign at the Fisher

Stefanie Powers in "The King and I"

Classical musical 'The King and I' launches national tour in Detroit on Tuesday.

Stefanie Powers is fueling up for the long tour of "The King and I" that opens Tuesday at the Fisher Theatre. Actually, she's munching lunch while talking on the phone in Ft. Myers, Fla., during a rehearsal break. In a few days, Powers and the rest of the company would hit the road for Detroit to kick off a 10-month run of this treasured Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which the leading lady calls "the finest of the finest."

"The King and I" has remained a fixture and reference point among American musicals since its Broadway premiere in 1951, with the then little-known Yul Brynner as the King of Siam and the celebrated but terminally ill Gertrude Lawrence as the English school teacher Anna Leonowens, whose arrival at the Siamese court brings profound change to both the royal family and Anna herself.

"If you're a real fan of musical theater, you have to love this show," says Powers, who recently finished an extended run as Anna in England.

"And if we want to do anything to encourage an interest in the theater among young people, to give them a solid understanding of the best, we should steer them to 'The King and I.' It's the whole package - a powerful story, fantastic lyrics, extraordinary dialogue and music that's sheer bliss to listen to."

That bliss wafts through such classic songs as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers," "We Kiss in a Shadow," "Shall We Dance?" and "Getting to Know You."

Yet, despite the romantic drift of its tunes, "The King and I" isn't exactly a love story. Or rather, says Powers, it's a story about transcendent love.

"It's an unrealized love. It's passion and love of an aesthetic nature that's completed by the audience. It's the best of all fantasies - falling in love with the impossible. It spins a fabulous dream. "

Based on Margaret Landon's 1944 historical novel, "The King and I" recalls how Anna Lowenowens accepts an invitation to the court of 1860s Siam - modern Thailand - as tutor to the King's numerous children, the royal family of princes and princesses. The relationship between the willful King and the democratic though likewise resolute Anna, who also happens to be a woman ahead of her time on the subject of gender equality, is testy from the start.

But slowly they come to discover the merits in each other. This strange, strong-minded woman is someone with whom the King can discuss science, history and even current politics. Anna comes to admire the King's strength of character and his wish to protect the cultural integrity his people from the influence of British dominion. Meanwhile, a conventional love story plays out in the background, a doomed relationship between two young people at court. If that affair ends bitterly, the conclusion of Anna's alliance with the King is bittersweet. He dies, imploring Anna to stay on and help his son bring Siam into the modern world.

Not incidentally, this old-fashioned story is played out in the form of an old-fashioned musical. That's part of what Powers loves about it.

"The production we're doing is a refreshing return to the original in many ways," she says. "For one thing, it restores Anna to the center of the story. Gertrude Lawrence commissioned the play. It was written for her. She was a huge star. Yul Brynner was unknown. Tragically, she died of cancer a short time into the run.

"Over the years, a great deal of the original dialogue was cut or altered, and here it is restored to its original balance and beauty. And I might point out that our director (Baayork Lee) was a child actor in the original production, and the mother of our choreographer (Susan Kikuchi) was the lead dancer in the original show. All that supercharges this production with a special vitality."

The director shares Powers' enchantment with "The King and I" as an old-school masterpiece.

"We're in the 21st century doing an old musical," says Baayork Lee. "It's not 'Grease' and it's not `Chorus Line.'" Lee speaks from ample experience. She also was in the original production of "Chorus Line" - no longer a child actor by then - and has been involved with that show as actor and director for more than three decades.

"In `Chorus Line,' you have no costumes, no intermission and characters speaking off the cuff. `The King and I' is thoroughly structured. It has to be done as a period piece - with the full orchestra, the gorgeous costumes, the dancing. This isn't a show you do in loafers. `The King and I' is what a musical was like in the '50s. "

Like Powers, the director sees this show as a special kind of love story. "It's about two people, a man and a woman," Lee says. "It happens to be Siam in the 19th century, but it could take place any time or anywhere. You don't have to be doing the act to be in love. There is feeling there. I was five years old watching Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner, and I still remember how strong their presence was - the powerful bond they formed between Anna and the King.

"The King has many wives, but not one as knowledgeable as Anna. He asks her to write letters for him. She helps him. She is his equal."

Powers adds amen to that.

"That's part of the attraction for so many actresses who have played Anna," she says. "In all of musical theater, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the greatest roles that women have ever had.

"And this is real theater, real drama. Think about it. You're in the middle of a musical and there's only one number sung by a principal actor in the entire second act. And nobody notices that fact. We're talking about a great book."

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