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.

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