CLEARWATER - The world has changed since ""The King and I' premiered on Broadway in March 1951.
But the play, based loosely on Margaret Langdon's book about a Welsh widow employed by the King of Siam in the 1860s, remains a milestone in musical theater. With its cross-cultural humor, tragic overtones and timeless songs, it has never fallen from favor.
The challenge for any big-ticket touring production, therefore, is to freshen familiar material without defacing the magnificent original work of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.
Frankly, if we had to pick a star who could lead a successful, faithful revival, Stefanie Powers might not come immediately to mind. Those who grew up watching her on ""The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.' and ""Hart to Hart' would never guess that the agile, auburn-haired actress also possesses first-class stage presence and singing skills.
But Powers is perfect as Anna Leonowens, who arrives in Bangkok telling her son Louis (Patrick Minor, a young Mississippian with a creditable British accent) to ""Whistle a Happy Tune' when facing uncertainty.
Expecting her own house and a respected teaching position, Anna discovers a country where women have no standing and the ruler is an egotistic dictator. Ronobir Lahiri doesn't try to emulate the famous Yul Brynner characterization of the King. Instead, he creates a feisty, bantamweight version with jumpier body language and a more melodious voice.
There's more to this production than the pleasing interplay between Anna and the King. The key subplot, for example, features Luz Lor … a sparkling soprano … as the heartbroken Tuptim. Her duets with her forbidden Burmese lover, Lun Tha (Martin Sola) … ""We Kiss in a Shadow' and ""I Have Dreamed' … remind us how many tuneful highlights are packed into this show.
You can forget the show-biz maxim that one ought not work with children. The youngsters here are adorable and adept in their roles as the King's offspring who learn (to his chagrin) that there is a larger world beyond his realm. ""The March of the Siamese Children' introduces them in a swirl of cute costumes, and their second-act interpretation of ""Uncle Tom's Cabin' is a balletic delight.
The climactic applause of the evening, of course, is reserved for Anna and her slowly civilizing employer as they spin to the strains of ""Shall We Dance?'
Even if you know the story and songs, this production deserves a visit. Wondrously detailed wardrobes are complemented by ornate, efficient scenic paintings, and conductor Kep Kaeppeler's modest-size orchestra fills the hall with delicious arrangements.
Although she's undeniably the star, Powers performs graciously as an ensemble player. In a brief curtain call speech, she thanked the audience for giving the company a good start on a 10-month tour.
She added, ""Thailand [formerly Siam] today is in great need,' and she asked patrons to contribute to tsunami relief on their way out. ""I will match it personally,' she pledged.
A little more than $14,000 was raised on opening night.
WHAT: The timeless musical love story between a powerful king and a determined governess
WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Friday and Saturday
WHERE: Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater
TICKETS: $37, $45, $47, $55, $57 and $65; (727) 791-7400