Thursday, February 24, 2005

Reign may be over for 'King'

Adequate. That is the succinct description of the production of "The King and I" brought to the Milwaukee Theatre this week by a national touring company. The show opened Tuesday night.

Longtime television and film star Stefanie Powers holds her own as Anna, the British widow hired in the 1860s by the king of Siam to tutor his small army of children. Although her stage credits are not extensive, she sings well and assumes the bearing of a Victorian schoolmarm.

It's too bad Powers lacks a strong partner to play off of. The king of Siam doesn't have to be physically large, but he must project a commanding presence. We should feel his power when we don't like him and his charm when we do.

Ronobir Lahiri works hard at trying to scale that mountain. He sputters and flails and ultimately does a lot of posing. His determined profile might look good on a Siamese coin, but it is not enough to convince us that his king is an absolute ruler with the personality to match.

The power shortage removes the context that makes the monarch's vulnerability poignant, and it changes the chemistry of the relationship between Anna and the king. Unfortunately, Powers and Lahiri don't share any chemistry.

A mechanical quality runs through the entire show, but there are some vivid exceptions that snap the piece back into sharp focus. Catherine MiEun Choi possesses a compelling and dignified presence in her portrayal of the king's head wife, Lady Thiang.

When Choi opens her mouth to sing, fasten your seat belts. Her voice training at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory is instantly evident.

The extended "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, re-created by Susan Kikuchi from Jerome Robbins' original choreography, is positively enchanting. It is danced extremely well in gorgeous costumes.

A basic level of competency is met by the large cast, and some easily exceed that mark. Production values are good. An argument can be made that, at 54, "The King and I" is not aging as well as most other Rodgers and Hammerstein classics. Even after taking into account the show's 19th-century period and its 1951 sensibilities, the mostly fictional story and cartoonish portrayal of Asians has become unsettling if not embarrassing.

The globe has shrunk, the U.S. has become much more ethnically diverse, and we see the world very differently in 2005. Perhaps "The King and I's" familiar hummable score should live on while the dated and problematic book goes the way of minstrel shows. Not every hit from the golden age of American musical theater is timeless.

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