Thursday, November 03, 2005

Pleasurable 'King' lacks spark

The resplendent textures, gilded Buddhas and elephant figurines evoking Bangkok provide one facet of a multitude of pleasures in the latest touring production of the classic Broadway musical, "The King and I."

But the show has a key fault -- the lack of sexual tension between the King of Siam and the British governess who arrives in 19th-century Thailand to teach his throng of children.

The last time the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II musical rolled into town, in 1998, English actress Hayley Mills played Anna Leonowens, the adventurous Welsh widow who accepts a job offer from the inquisitive but stubborn King of Siam, known as "Lord of Light" and ruler of all things in his country.

This time, the PNC Bank Broadway in Louisville presentation at the Kentucky Center features Stefanie Powers as Anna.

Mills had a winning spunkiness but an untrained and unimpressive singing voice. Powers, best known for her role on television's "Hart to Hart," brings a lofty bearing to the role as well as the musical pipes to sing Anna's half-dozen songs, including the poignantly beautiful "Hello, Young Lovers" and the cheerful but tricky "I Whistle a Happy Tune."

Powers is fun to watch, especially when she privately imagines giving the king a piece of her mind while wearing pantaloons and singing "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You."

The problem with this show, however, lies in the scenes between Powers' Anna and Ronobir Lahiri's King. The undercurrent of danger and physical attraction that made the Yul Brynner-Deborah Kerr movie so enchanting and memorable is missing in this version, directed by Baayork Lee, who appeared in the original "The King and I" as the youngest princess.

Lahiri is considerably shorter than Powers and less than commanding. At Tuesday night's opening performance, he failed to crisply articulate "A Puzzlement," and his singing was lost in the orchestration. He's best when quipping about his multitude of children, but it's disappointing that Lahiri, who has an impressive list of film and stage credits -- and who played this role opposite Powers on a United Kingdom tour and was the understudy on Broadway in 1997 -- projects such a tepid presence as the King of Siam.

Compensating pleasures are found in the performances of Nita Baxani and Martin Sola as the sympathetic "young lovers" who sing "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." Catherine MiEun Choi provides a sense of compassionate wisdom with an affecting "Something Wonderful." And the sparkling, instructive Act II number, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas," in which slavery is condemned, is among the most charming scenes of all in the nearly three-hour show.

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