Monday, September 26, 2005

Reunited stars deliver on "The King and I" hits

Now playing

"The King and I," by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Tuesday through Oct. 9 at The 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $19-$71 (206-292-ARTS or www.5thavenuetheatre.org).

Lavish and splendid in most respects, the 5th Avenue's production of "The King and I" benefits from reuniting the stars of a 2002 U.K. tour.

Ronobir Lahiri brings a slyly comic flair to the role of the king of 19th-century Siam; he's also capable of flashy tantrums when he doesn't get his way. Stefanie Powers, as the British schoolteacher hired to instruct his many children, is a strong match for him, especially when she's trying to get him to make good on his promises.

Lahiri turns the king's big culture-clash number, "A Puzzlement," into a genuinely poignant admission of vulnerability. Powers delivers the show's emotional high point with the irresistibly nostalgic "Hello, Young Lovers," then follows it up with a deliciously sarcastic version of "Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You?" When they collaborate on the rambunctious waltz, "Shall We Dance?" it seems as if they can do no wrong.

Susan Kikuchi's choreography, closely based on Jerome Robbins' original work, makes a showstopper of the show's play-within-a-play, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," which transforms the anti-slavery lessons of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" into something dangerously specific.

And the hits just keep on coming: "The March of the Siamese Children," with its melodic establishment of the pecking order in the palace; "Getting to Know You," in which the teacher bonds with her students; and "I Whistle a Happy Tune," in which she admits her fear of a foreign culture. The veteran director, Baayork Lee, is clearly as interested in characterizations as she is in the quality of the voices.

Catherine Mieun Choi, the king's head wife, turns "Something Wonderful," a song that can seem masochistic, into a hymn of forgiveness and devotion. On Friday, shrill miking compromised Nita Baxani's performance of her royalty-defying number, "My Lord and Master"; the sound improved later for her lovely version of "We Kiss in a Shadow."

The show got off to a shaky start with an opening scene afflicted by stilted stage business, but it improved quickly with the help of Kevin Farrell's vigorous musical supervision -- and some of the most gorgeous, eye-filling sets and costumes ever to complement the Oriental d├ęcor of the 5th Avenue.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The King and I Schedule

Sept. 20 - Oct. 9 - 5th Avenue Theater, Seattle, Washington
Oct. 18 - 19 - Civic Center, Tallahassee, FL
Oct. 21 - 23 - Palace Theatre, Myrtle Beach, SC
Oct. 25 - 30 - Carr Performing Arts Centre, Orlando, Florida
Nov. 1 - 6 - Kentucky Center for Performing Arts, Louisville, Kentucky
Nov. 8 - 13 - New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, New Jersey

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Beloved 'King and I' characters, etcetera, etcetera, are back onstage at the 5th

It's been a while since a touring production of "The King and I" came through Seattle. One problem is that you need an exotic-looking leading man who can pass for an 1860s Siamese autocrat.

The late Yul Brynner was spectacularly successful in this role when the show opened on Broadway in 1951. And he starred in the 1956 film and in various stage revivals, including the road show that played Seattle some 20 years ago.

The late Rudolf Nureyev, best known as a sensational Soviet-turned-American ballet dancer, played the king in a touring production that came to Seattle in 1989.

The "King and I" that opens Thursday at the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre features in the title role Ronobir Lahiri, a New York actor with Bollywood ties.

The other character referred to in the title is played by film and TV veteran Stefanie Powers. She co-stars with Lahiri as Anna Leonowens, a Welsh widow who goes to Siam -- now known as Thailand -- to take a job in Bangkok as tutor to the polygamous King Mongkut's many children.

Leonowens was a real person. Margaret Langdon wrote a novel based on her journals. It was published in 1944.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

"The King and I" at the San Diego Civic Theatre

People have thrilled and swooned at the fictionalized story of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam (now Thailand). But no incarnation of "The King and I" -- be it filmic or theatrical -- has ever been presented in Thailand. The reason: The Thai government believes the story is insulting to the memory of a revered king, as well as the Thai people, portraying them as childlike, coarse and simple.

The updated and nonmusical filmic production in 1999 called "Anna and the King," starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, filled out the story and went a long way in correcting some of those portrayals of racism and British superiority. But the national touring production of the musical "The King and I," now playing at the Civic Theatre, strives to be true to the Rodgers and Hammerstein roots, which means a return to R&H's oversimplification and highly fictionalized pseudo-romantic comedy.

A bit of history: Anna Leonowens was most likely a bit player in King Mongkut's royal palace during the 1860s. She was the fourth in a series of English teachers, spent five years at court and left a year before the king died of malaria. She wrote two popular and, according to critics, wildly fictionalized accounts of her stay, elevating herself to status as royal adviser.

Enter Margaret Landon in 1944. Inspired by Leonowens' accounts, Landon writes the historical romance, "Anna and the King of Siam." The book, which took yet more fictional license, in turn inspired a 1946 film starring Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne. With four degrees of separation from the facts, Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalize the story, which opened on Broadway in 1951.

The R&H musical has at its core the suppressed romance between the king and Anna, a governess to his many children. It also addresses issues like feminism, slavery, political diplomacy and culture clashes.

And yet it presents a sometimes insulting depiction of the Siamese. It offers much unsophisticated humor based on mispronunciation and linguistic ridicule. Here is the overt ethnocentricity of a British elementary schoolteacher who shapes diplomatic policy and teaches the backwards Asian monarch to think and waltz like a European.

But overlook all that, as most audiences surely will, and the success of the production depends on the delicate depiction of Anna and King Mongkut’s relationship -- filled with much frustration but also mutual respect. He must be portrayed as a stubborn idealist, a man conflicted by ties to tradition and the pull toward modernity. He must be utterly aggravated by Anna’s willfulness and seeming disrespect, but also view her as a stimulating intellectual. And Anna must be a stimulating intellectual. She must be wise and warm beneath her frosty and proper exterior.

The touring production disappoints in this regard. Stefanie Powers and Ronobir Lahiri have little chemistry and less credibility in the roles of these two pivotal characters.

Powers has the icily proper Brit thing down, and she’s got stage presence. One of the most surprisingly ribald scenes is “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” when her icy exterior is dropped in private. But Powers’ voice isn’t particularly strong or beautiful -- her limited range causes a quiver in the upper registers -- and she comes across a bit too much the schoolmarm biddy. The feminism seething beneath the surface feels quaint and feeble.

Lahiri plays up the humor (which often relies on the xenophobic overtones) in the role -- to the detriment of the drama. Lahiri’s overall depiction is almost a caricature, a one-dimensional buffoon. He displays neither the commanding presence of a king, nor the emotional complexity of a thinker and diplomat.

There are some redeeming qualities. The supporting cast is strong, especially Catherine Mieun Choi as the king’s No. 1 wife. Her acting is spot on and her mezzo-soprano voice is mesmerizing. Nita Baxani’s acting is a bit stiff as the king’s young, impetuous “gift bride” in love with another man, but her duets with Martin Sola as the illicit lover add some gravity and grace. Both carry big, powerful voices.Roger Kirk’s opulent costumes better re-create the splendor of the time and place than Kenneth Foy’s mostly two-dimensional but still effective sets.

Easily the highlight of the production is the interpretation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” reimagined by the Siamese as “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Here choreographer Susan Kikuchi (with a big nod to Jerome Robbins) presents a sumptuous Thai folk opera -- incorporating dance, pantomime, music and storytelling –- that delights in every way.

This is a capable production that ultimately lacks heart because its two leads feel mismatched and unbelievable. When the show’s final tragedies occur, we shrug them off without a care and, at best, leave whistling a happy tune.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The King and I - Seattle

Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I
September 20 - October 9, 2005
Music by Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Based on Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon

"Shall We Dance? On A Bright Cloud Of Music Shall We Fly"

East meets West in the timeless story of the autocratic King of Siam and Anna, the British governess he's hired to teach his many children. Based on the real-life adventures of Anna Leonowens, The King and I presents a fascinating clash of customs, as Anna's Western ways threaten the King's beliefs. But as the months pass, their battle of wills gives way to grudging admiration - and a tender love begins to bloom.

Set in the 1860s in the exotic city of Bangkok, this Tony Award-winning musical features ornate sets and lavish costumes. The dazzling Rodgers and Hammerstein score features such memorable songs as "Hello Young Lovers," "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Shall We Dance" and "Getting to Know You."

Stefanie Powers, star of stage, film and TV (Hart to Hart, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.), headlines this sumptuous new production.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Powers likes life on the road as Anna in 'The King and I'

"The King and I"
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Sept. 15; 7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Sept. 16; 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 17; 1 and 6 p.m. Sept. 18
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, Third Avenue at B Street, San Diego
Tickets: $22-$60
Info: (619) 570-1100
Web: www.broadwaysd.com

Stefanie Powers may be better known for her long-running role on television's "Hart to Hart" for the past four years, but it's the stage role of Anna Leonowens in "The King and I" that has ruled her life.

The veteran actress starred as the fussy English schoolteacher in the West End production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and she is reprising the part this year in the U.S. national tour, which arrives in San Diego on Tuesday.

Set in 1860s Siam, the musical tells the story of the prickly relationship between the nation's progressive but stubborn king and the widowed teacher whom he hired to educate his many wives and children. Powers answered a few questions about the tour in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home last week.

Q: The tour has been receiving great reviews since it launched in January. To what do you attribute the success?

A: We've received the highest seal of approval from the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate, which feels great. I think our version of the show is probably as close to the original Broadway production as it can possibly be due in great part to two elements. Our director, Baayork Lee, played a princess in the original production with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner. And Susan Kikuchi, our choreographer, is the daughter of the show's original lead dancer. They've worked very hard to re-create Richard Rodgers' and Oscar Hammerstein's original intent.

Q: What kind of research did you do for the role of Anna?

A: I did a lot of research on both Anna's life and the history of the period. I've always been a student of history and I love the Far East and I used to have a home in Hong Kong. I'm fascinated with that period in history, the Industrial Revolution and the enlargement of the British empire.

Q: What about the role of Anna appeals to you?

Powers: It's a gift to perform her. If you like doing musical theater and you're a woman, then this part is about as good as it gets. When the producers decided to do a U.S. tour, they came to me and asked if I'd be interested. The deal was sealed when I was lucky enough to get the actor who had played the king with me in England, Ronobir Lahiri.

Q: Why do you like working with Ronobir?

A: He's a wonderful, generous actor, and there's such a fluidity in the way we work together. It's like a great tennis match when you know the person on the other side of the net will definitely lob the ball back to you.

Q: The musical calls for you to work with a lot of children onstage. Has that been a challenge?

A: The kids are wonderful. They're just a joy. They all tend to look upon me as Mrs. Anna and they look to me for leadership, so I always try to take them out on field trips in every city we visit.

Q: What kind of field trips?

A: I have another life in wildlife conservation and I have friends at all the zoos around the country, so I've taken them to zoos in every city we've visited. Of course, we're coming to the San Diego Zoo for a behind-the-scenes tour when we're down there.

Q: What's life like on the road?

A: Well, fortunately we've had a couple of months off this summer, but we start back up in San Diego. The road is all about packing and unpacking like a circus. It's hard but it's rewarding.

Q: When you're not touring, how else are you spending your time?

A: I'm the president of the William Holden Wildlife Foundation. We have ongoing projects in East Africa and a sister organization, the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. We have breeding programs for 37 species. My baby is the education center where we serve 11,000 students a year. We're focused on wildlife conservation and alternatives to destruction of the habitat for animals and humans.

Q: Do you have any free time left for frivolous hobbies?

A: I guess my only frivolous activity is polo. I love my horses and I love visiting my homes in L.A., London and Kenya.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The King and I

Stefanie is heading for San Diego tomorrow to begin rehearsals for the next run of The King and I.