Thursday, October 27, 2005

Orlando: Lacking any passion, production falls flat

Everybody of a certain age loves The King and I.

Just look at the gray-haired woman in front of me at the Carr Performing Arts Centre, where yet another tour of the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II musical opened Tuesday night. As the orchestra starts to play the first notes of its introduction to "Shall We Dance?," this buttoned-up audience member can't contain herself: She claps in delight.

I know how she feels: "Shall We Dance?" is one of the great numbers in musical theater. But what we're responding to in this version of The King and I isn't on the stage at Carr. It's the ghost of the musical that was.

This particular tour of The King and I is audio-animatronic theater, paint-by-numbers theater -- the kind of theater that faithfully reproduces what you expect to see onstage but leaves out every ounce of the heart. If all you want is to hear somebody sing Rodgers and Hammerstein's glorious songs, this King and I might do for you. But if you want to feel the passion that percolates just below the surface of this beloved musical, you'd be better off renting the film.

You can't fault the handsome production, the scarlet and gold, peacock blue and emerald of the scenic design and the elegant silks of the costumes. Instead, blame the producers for trotting out TV actress Stefanie Powers, whose Anna comes across more as an aging neighbor, always chipper but slightly out of touch, rather than the 30ish governess she's supposed to be. And blame director Baayork Lee, who played one of the smallest children in the original King and I in 1951, when she was 5, but who treats the show like a trusty but not very interesting machine. It's Chevrolet theater, not Porsche.

It's hard to imagine the casting sessions that came up with Powers, who hit her heyday 25 years ago in the TV series Hart to Hart. Surely there are appropriate roles for an attractive actress in her early 60s, despite her quavery, Glynis Johns-like voice. But Anna Leonowens was not yet 30 when she went off to work for the king of Siam, and in the fictionalized version she had a young son in tow. In Orlando, Powers could be her stage son's grandmother -- more significantly, she could be the king of Siam's mother, or maybe his maiden aunt.

Yet age is less the problem than a lack of passion -- an offhand quality that runs all the way through. It's not just that Powers fails to connect with Ronobir Lahiri, the thirty- something actor who plays the king as a goofy, petulant boy. It's that Lun Tha (the handsome-voiced Martin Sola) fails to connect with his lover Tuptim (Nita Baxani), that the king barely connects with his son, Prince Chululongkorn, and that Anna barely connects with the kids.

With so many missed connections, it's a wonder Anna gets to Siam at all.

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