Friday, April 15, 2005

Uninspired leads taint 'The King & I'

Evidence of the musical's choreographer was apparent only after intermission.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" opened for a two-week engagement at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on Tuesday April 5, offering uninspired and even insulting lead performances, with the show saved only by a truly delightful supporting cast.

Set in 1860s Bangkok, Thailand, "The King and I" tells the true story of the well-meaning King of Siam and an English governess, both determined to rule their corner of the world.

It's virtually impossible to escape the noble shadow of Yul Brynner, whose film portrayal of the King as a stubborn idealist whose dreams are shattered by his own barely acknowledged frailty still resonates from the screen today. Brynner gave his King such gravitas that his scripted Pidgin English was somehow extremely powerful.

In the version currently at the Pantages, however, the King is not stubborn; he's downright capricious. Ronobir Lahiri transformed the role into a one-dimensional punch line at best.

Once past the script's racist overtones that he plays up like mad, Lahiri was actually funny. He delivered comic lines with a Spock-like eyebrow and threw tantrums like a mad child.

Good for humor, bad for drama.

Drama matters in "The King and I." Throughout the play, the King struggles internally. How can he protect his country against Burma, England and the world? He worries about alliances, about militaries, about social justice ... and at the same time, falls in love with this stubborn, frustrating Englishwoman!

Stefanie Powers (star of the early '80s TV hit, "Hart to Hart") recently received much acclaim for several tours as English governess Anna Leonowens. Unfortunately, she earned no praise for her one-note performance Tuesday night.

With a singing voice only marginally better than Lahiri's straining low tenor, Powers struggled repeatedly with some of the show's best music. The higher the notes, the more her tone resembled anger rather than love.

Always the proper British marm, Powers presented an Anna largely lacking in human warmth. When did she fall in love? Apparently only at the end, when the drama was suddenly ramped up by the leads in a desperate attempt at relevancy.

In the story, Anna fights to earn respect from the King, raise her son and understand the strange world she finds herself in. Anna's conflict is made difficult by an oversimplified script (R&H weren't perfect), but it is still a very complex role, which Powers painted with only broad strokes.

In the face of such disappointments, the audience happily turned to "something wonderful" in the supporting cast. The King's first wife, played admirably by Catherine Mieun Choi, sang a beautiful keynote "Something Wonderful." Sadly, her well-wrought emotions fell flat in the face of a less-than-wonderful King.

The crown prince, played by an emphatic and exciting Lou Castro, led a cast of incredibly cute children who stole the scene time and again. And Hal Davis (Captain Orton/Sir Edward Ramsay) brought a much-needed steady hand and the experience of more than 60 professional productions to the stage.

In the supporting love story, Michelle Liu Coughlin (Tuptim) ravished the audience. Clearly holding back in a desperate attempt to not outshine the leads, Coughlin's powerhouse voice clearly needed no help to fill the golden halls of the Pantages.

Perhaps the show's problems stemmed from its static directing, which left nearly every song and major acting moment completely unmoving. When choreographer Susan Kikuchi finally stepped in shortly after intermission, the supporting cast presented a spectacular "Small House of Uncle Thomas." Bright costumes, brilliant dancing and delightful characterization - this interlude was the highlight of the night and is not to be missed.

In the end, the tragedy of this "The King and I" sits empty in the heart. A silly King's death is surprising, but not sorrowful. He was too simple to be mourn, and his lover too distant to feel for. Perhaps they'll both warm up to human temperatures in the two weeks they have left on the stage in Los Angeles.


"The King & I" runs April 5 to 17, Tuesday to Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tickets range from $42.50 to $67.50 and can be purchased online at or through Ticketmaster.

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