Friday, January 21, 2005

Review: 'The King and I"

A "royal" love story entertains at Detroit's Fisher Theatre

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear - the early '50s to be exact. Detroit's population was almost 2 million; its streets were canopied with arching trees, and it was a hot spot for touring theater. Today, the population is halved; the trees ravaged by beetles. But every once in a while, a show comes to town that reminds us what the glory days of Broadway looked like in the Motor City.

The current tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 blockbuster, "The King and I," is as retro as a PT Cruiser. It boasts an attractive, low-tech ("Look, Ma! No turntable!") set. Its "glitz" is in the costumes, some of which are literally dazzling. It employs a big ensemble of singers and dancers, backed by the rich depth of a full orchestra. It returns to the stage the stunning choreography of Jerome Robbins, as recreated by Susan Kikuchi. Oh, and last but certainly not least, it features some of the most beautiful music in the American theater, written by two masters of the art.

A little "star power" doesn't hurt, either.

Stefanie Powers, better known for her television work ("Hart to Hart"), appears as Anna Leonowens, the British-born schoolteacher who accepts a post in the royal court of Siam. Her sensitive, low-keyed reading of Anna is central to the production; her pleasant singing voice adequately addresses her musical numbers.

An energetic Ronobir Lahiri provides a fine-tuned counterpoint to Ms. Powers' restraint. His interpretation of the King is not so much autocrat as frustrated head of a household - comfortable with his privilege, but both seeking and fearing change. It is an altogether winning performance.

But the "star" here is that incomparable music. To hear just how good it can sound performed live, listen to mezzo Catherine MiEun Choi as Lady Thiang. Her solo, "Something Wonderful," is wonderful, indeed. You may be tempted to throw away your Yul Brynner CD.

On the other hand, was there a decision to move the focus more on Anna and the King than it was already? Was it necessary to tighten the reins and get this big show down to its two and half hour running time? The doomed love of Tuptim, a "gift" to the King, and the Burmese emissary, Lun Tha, seems truncated and rushed. Pity - "We Kiss in a Shadow" should be a showstopper whenever it's performed.

On the whole, though, a little Thailand heat, courtesy of Rogers and Hammerstein, might warm your heart this January.

"The King and I" Presented Tuesday through Sunday at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, through Jan. 30. Tickets: $30.50 - $68. 313-872-1000.

The Bottom Line: This tour serves up a healthy helping of classic musical theater -as familiar and satisfying as Mom's meat loaf.

No comments: