Thursday, January 13, 2005

A crisp and tuneful 'The King and I'

Stefanie Powers shines in heartfelt, well-staged classic musical

For the happiest sight in town these days, you can't beat the procession of cute and graceful children, each robed in a different shimmering color, as they step up to meet their new teacher from England, played by the pretty darned graceful Stefanie Powers, in "The King and I."

"March of the Siamese Children," always a high point of Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical, sells itself: Kids walk on stage, playgoers' hearts melt. You can get away with doing only that, but director Baayork Lee goes a step further. Each child does a little something to distinguish himself or herself without distracting from the overall effect. One child, for instance, enters absorbed in a book and barely looks up until reality intrudes.

Lee, who was one of those children in the original 1951 Broadway production, presides over a crisp and engaging production at the Fisher Theatre. Never underestimate crispness. At 2 1/2 hours, Lee's staging is 25 minutes shorter than the 2003 production at the Stratford Festival but it never feels rushed.

But you want to know if Stefanie Powers can sing.

She can, indeed, and she sings for clarity as well as tone. Every word is understandable. And Powers, as teacher Anna Leonowens, feigns a consistent and convincing English accent. As the King of Siam, Ronobir Lahiri, her costar sings for power and clarity, too, and feigns a kind of pan-Asian accent that preserves the king's dignity while allowing the audience to chuckle at his wrangles with English.

This next thing isn't Lahiri's fault, but with his head shaved there isn't anyplace to hide his microphone. The sound is excellent, we know everyone is miked, but it's disconcerting to see.

Powers and Lahiri put forth the respect, affection, stubbornness and clashing values that unite and separate the king and the teacher and, by extension, the Thailand and England of the 1860s as written by Americans in the 1950s.

Powers and Lahiri are not, of course, alone. Luz Lor and Martin Sola sing exquisitely as the ill-fated lovers Tuptim, the king's new concubine, and Lun Tha, who accompanied her from Burma. Catherine MiEun Choi, as Lady Thiang, the king's chief wife, conveys pain and pride with every word and note.

And what songs they get to sing. Powers has "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers" and the humorously furious soliloquy "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You."

In "A Puzzlement," Lahiri ponders, but lightly, how it feels to bear the world on his shoulders. Sola and Lor have two lovely, romantic ballads, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed."

The orchestra plays with special verve -- a little too much, though, drowning out the end of "I Have Dreamed."

Blessedly free of opening-night glitches, "The King and I" seems poised for a joyous reign.

'The King and I'
THREE STARS out of four stars
8 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 & 8 p.m. Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sun. through Jan. 30

Fisher Theatre
Fisher Building
West Grand Boulevard at Second
Detroit, MI
2 hours, 30 minutes

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