In the dark ages before feminism and women’s studies, there was a phenomenon known as the strong woman. Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall and Deborah Kerr, for example, were able to stand up to a man and not cave, maintaining an edge yet retaining their warmth, charm, femininity, sexuality and ability to love. There’s still much to be learned from such a woman, and Stefanie Powers has brought all these qualities to her portrayal of Anna Leonowens, in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s "The King & I." Based on a real-life woman of the 1860s, Anna was first depicted in the 1944 novel, "Anna and the King of Siam" by Margaret Landon. The recently widowed Anna comes with her son Louis (Patrick Minor) from England to teach the children of the barbaric King of Siam (Ronobir Lahiri). Restricted to the palace quarters and treated initially much like the King’s other servants, Anna is anything but compliant. She teaches the children, and in the process, the King, but fights him every step of the way, eventually getting him to change his tactics by breaking through to his heart. In the process, she sings lyrics such as, "I do not like polygamy, or even moderate bigamy. I realize that in your eyes, that clearly makes a prig of me." Touching upon these issues, along with slavery, East vs. West, imperialism, male vs. female, and repressed love, indeed, there’s still a lot to be learned from a 1951 musical.
The music (directed by Kevin Farrell and conducted by Kep Kaeppeler), familiar to most theatergoers (though perhaps novel to "American Idol" judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson who berated one contestant for singing the "boring" "Hello, Young Lovers"), is as lush and sweeping as ever, and Powers does it justice. Her voice is pleasant and capable, if rushed, whether directorially or because of opening night energy is hard to say. The few times any of the cast takes a pause, it becomes a true breath of fresh air. When Hal Davis comes on stage as Sir Edward Ramsay, his composed decorum is a relief. Tuptim (Michelle Liu Coughlin) and Lun Tha (Martin Sola) sing prettily, but are overshadowed by schmaltzy orchestrations in "I Have Dreamed." Lady Thaing (Catherine Mieun Choi) just misses the peak in the almost showstopping number, "Something Wonderful."
For anyone coming specifically to see Ms. Powers, her age will be no surprise, but for those new to her or the show, there is no denying she’s not exactly the right age for the role. Powers is enough of a presence to pull it off, however, as she tosses her head back in a schoolgirl-like manner, strikes elegant poses with ease, and has a youthful energy that defies gravity.
Director Baayork Lee has put together an appealing production that falls just slightly shy of the fireworks and electricity "The King and I" is capable of. The reason to see this version is not necessarily its star, but rather its exotic nature that radiates through the costumes, sets, and dance numbers. Lee’s history is strongly tied to choreography, so although Susan Kikuchi choreographed, Lee’s direction is strongest through the dance. The choreography playfully incorporates intricate fan dances, pinwheeled parasols and flowing ribbons, and "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," led by Natalie Turner and Amy Chiang, is exquisite. Kenneth Foy has designed luxurious sets, that complement Roger Kirk’s sumptuous costumes, all in colors so vibrant -- rich turquoise, orange, magenta -- they jump off the rainbow, and satins so sleek, they bolt across the stage. The stage itself is a magnificent, shiny ebony, like the deep, frozen lake of ice frequently referenced in the material. It reflects the giant hoop skirts as if iconic statues growing out of the earth, skating across the expanse. Press releases use the words "opulent" and "lavish," and frankly, there are no better words. If the shoe fits, even in barefoot Siam, you wear it: Opulent and lavish it is.
Stefanie Powers in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I at the Pantages, 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA
Through April 17, 2005
Tues. – Fri. at 8PM; Sat. at 2PM & 8PM; Sun. at 1PM & 6:30PM
Tickets: $42.50, $57.50 and $67.50 at box office, Ticketmaster outlets, by phone: 213-365-3500 or 714-740-7878, or online: www.BroadwayLA.org