Thursday, April 07, 2005

'The King & I' as we all remember it

Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King & I' is a musical about overcoming one's fear of change and progress, yet the national tour now playing in Hollywood remains entrenched in the mid-20th century era of its creation.

Stefanie Powers (TV's "Hart to Hart') stars as Anna Leonowens, the English widow brought in the 1860s from Singapore to instruct the children of the king of Siam. The king is played by Ronobir Lahiri, who co-starred with Powers in the United Kingdom national tour of the show.

The king has hired Anna with the goal of enlightening his many wives and children in the language and customs of the West, yet he holds fast to his beliefs in his ancient culture and the submissive status of women.

Anna challenges not only his traditions but his power, confronting him on an unkept promise to let her live outside the palace and upbraiding him for accepting a beautiful slave, Tuptim (Michelle Liu Coughlin), as a gift from the king of Burma. While her outspokeness would have been shocking in the 1860s, particularly as a British subject addressing royalty, and eyebrow-raising in 1951 when "The King & I' opened on Broadway, it has lost its impact on its audience over time.

Director Baayork Lee at age 5 played one of the princesses in the original production and seems intent on holding true to the show's roots, from the Jerome Robbins choreography to the beautiful yet highly conventional sets by Kenneth Foy.

Lahiri plays the stubborn king with strength, humor and just the right touch of tenderness, but he has not made the role his own. From his shaved head and fists-on-hips stance to the cut of his costumes, the performance seems an homage to Yul Brynner, whose Broadway and film performances indelibly defined the character.

Those who think of Powers as a TV star will be pleasantly surprised by her stage presence and vocal skills. At 62, she is about two decades past the character's age, but she still has the energy for it. Powers and Lahiri play well off each other in the show's trademark '"Shall We Dance?" scene, and she shines particularly on "Hello, Young Lovers' and "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"

The romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha (Martin Sola) seems pasted in as a plot device and a reason to toss in love duets that are not suited to the unspoken love between Anna and the king.

"The King & I' is an eye-pleasing production, especially the play within, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," Tuptim's interpretation of the novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But it is wrapped up in its traditions, a time capsule of both 1860s Siam and 1950s America.

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