Sunday, March 20, 2005

Houston: The King and I deserves royal treatment

On the grounds of familiarity alone, it would be easy to take The King and I for granted — if the whole thing were not so extraordinarily good.

The touring revival currently at Hobby Center benefits from a solid cast headed by Stefanie Powers' spirited, firm-minded and tender-hearted Anna and Ronobir Lahiri's charismatic, quick-tempered King. It also boasts handsome settings by Kenneth Foy, rich and authentic costumes by Roger Kirk (from the 1996 Broadway revival) and astute staging by director Baayork Lee.

Yet the crucial effect of these virtues is to unleash the potency of Richard Rodgers' soaring music and Oscar Hammerstein's superbly crafted libretto — the core strengths that, since its 1951 premiere, have kept The King and I one of the most beloved musicals of Broadway's golden age. It ranks alongside Carousel as one of this nonpareil team's most inspired and deeply felt works.

They began with a fascinating, fact-based story unusual for the musical stage: the clash of wills between the autocratic King of Siam and the feisty English widow who came to 1860s Bangkok to teach his children. Hammerstein reshaped episodic source material into a coherent libretto. Despite constant conflict, growing understanding develops as Anna becomes the King's adviser in a diplomatic crisis. But they reach an impasse of irreconcilable differences over the King's treatment of his slave Tuptim when she attempts escape to be with her lover.

As much about the war between the sexes as the clash of cultures, The King and I entertains by finding the humor, charm, romance and poignancy in its story. Yet underlying its entertainment are themes of genuine substance: the need for understanding between different peoples, the evils of slavery, the challenges of leadership, the uneasy passage of power to a new generation.

Hammerstein's sensitive, poetic lyrics crystallize the story's emotional peaks, which take wing on Rodgers' gorgeous, long-lined melodies. Memorable in their own right, the songs are also perfectly tailored to reveal character and situation.

Anna's I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting to Know You and Shall I Tell You What I Think of You convey her grace, crispness and determination. The King's A Puzzlement shows his mercurial temperament and questing spirit. The doomed lovers' haunting ballads We Kiss in a Shadow and I Have Dreamed combine melancholy yearning with fleeting rapture.

Anna's wistful Hello, Young Lovers both recalls her love for her late husband and foreshadows her championing of Tuptim's cause. The eloquent Something Wonderful speaks volumes about the person singing it (head wife Lady Thiang), the person she is singing about (the King) and the person she is singing it to (Anna). Then there is the uniquely delightful meeting of East and West in Shall We Dance?, the joyous polka in which Anna and the King finally touch.

The King and I is an argument for the joys of specificity that can be achieved only with an original score created for a particular story. It puts to shame the current spate of "jukebox musicals" built on pre-existing pop catalogs.

Director Lee has a long history with the show. At age 5, she originated the role of tiny Princess Ying Yaowalak in the premiere production. Her sensitive staging is faithful yet fresh in feeling. While stressing the humorous aspects of early scenes, her handling takes on the requisite seriousness as the story deepens.

Powers and Lahiri, reprising their roles from a 2002 tour of the United Kingdom, prove felicitously cast. Powers' Anna exudes briskness, drive and sympathetic warmth, and she sings with feeling and authority. Lahiri brings commanding physicality, arbitrary fury and threatening power to the King — but also glints of nobility and quizzical humor.

Catherine Mieun Choi gives a moving portrayal of the self-effacing but quietly devoted Lady Thiang, peaking in her superbly rendered Something Wonderful. Michelle Liu Coughlin brings her fine, strong soprano to Tuptim's melancholy yearning, pairing in duets with Martin Sola's stalwart-voiced Lun Tha. Ronald Banks plays the Kralahome with brooding force.

Susan Kikuchi has re-created Jerome Robbins' distinctive choreography for the brilliantly conceived ballet, Small House of Uncle Thomas (Tuptim's take on Uncle Tom's Cabin). Natalie Turner dances its lead role, Eliza, with piquancy and precision; the entire dance company acquits itself admirably in this showpiece.

For the record, this is the first major production of King and I here since the tour of the 1996 Broadway revival in 1998. The new tour is produced by a consortium of 22 regional companies, including Atlanta's Theatre Of The Stars (lead producer) and Houston's TUTS, which is presenting it here.


• When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through April 3
• Where: Sarofim Hall, Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby
• Tickets: $27-$72; 713-558-8887

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