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.

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