Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Review: The King and I

The King and I

(Prudential Hall, NJPAC; Newark, N.J.; 2,750 seats; $35 top)

A New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Atlanta's Theater of Stars and Independent Presenters Network presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Baayork Lee.

Captain Orton, Sir Edward Ramsey - Hal Davis
Louis Leonowens - Patrick Scott Minor
Anna Leonowens - Stefanie Powers
The Interpreter - Scott Kitajima
The Kralahome - Ronald M. Banks
The Royal Dancer - Jessica Wu
The King of Siam - Ronobir Lahiri
Lun Tha - Martin Sola
Tuptim - Nita Baxani
Lady Thiang - Catherine MiEun Choi
Prince Chululongkorn - Allan Mangaser
Princess Ying Yaowlak - Daphne Chen
Fan Dancer - Kumi Kimura

Winding up a 22-city cross-country tour, "The King and I""The King And I" has settled down in Newark with a perfectly lovely Victorian schoolmarm at the helmhelm and the luscious legacy of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's durable score. The lavish bus and truck production has comfortably weathered the half-century mark bolstered by picturesque design and Baayork Lee's well-focused staging.
Anna Leonowens, the dauntless schoolteacher imported from Britain to Siam to educatethe king's expansive household of children, is played with considerable spunk by Stefanie Powers. In addition to the right mix of reserve and stately beauty, she also possesses a lovely soprano voice, only glimpsed when she appeared as Margo Channing in a Paper Mill Playhouse production of "Applause" a few seasons back.

Powers' widowed tutor reveals maternal warmth when she gathers the children about her to "Whistle a Happy Tune." There's witty defiance in the response to her employer's demands, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" and most embracing is her tender blessing to the star-crossed sweethearts, "Hello, Young Lovers."

The king is no longer quite the star turn once fashioned by Yul Brynner. Ronobir Lahiri is perhaps the most youthful in a long line of theatrical kings. He's certainly not a cuddly emperor, and manages to conveyarrogance and royal authority. But the childish needling humor and warm condescension never seem to successfully surface. His delightful, quizzical delivery of "A Puzzlement," however, is everything it should be.

Catherine MiEun Choi is a wise Lady Thiang, and she makes "Something Wonderful" exactly that. As Tuptim, the errant princess, Nita Baxani together with Martin Sola as her doomed lover deliver two of the most sensuous ballads in the R&H canon, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed." The romantic fervor of the theater's golden age survives with considerable distinction.

A batch of barefoot tots scurry across the stage representing a small parcel of the king's 60-some offspring. The extraordinary capacity of Rodgers' melodies to charm and seduce an audience is in evidence as they enter the throne room in "The March of the Siamese Children."

Director Lee, who appeared in the original Broadway production at the age of 5 and is best known for creating the role of Connie in "A Chorus Line," has harnessed the show's physical beauty and its intrinsic exotic flavor.

Still the centerpiece of act two, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet parody, as originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, remains an engaging sideshow

Kenneth Foy's bejeweled set design is especially sumptuous for a traveling company. The picture-postcard Thailand is richly dressed with golden Buddha statues and high-columned anterooms for visual allure, enhanced by Roger Kirk's traditional period costumes and sweeping hoop skirts.

Sets, Kenneth Foy; costumes, Roger Kirk; lighting, John McLain; sound, Abe Jacob, Mark Cowburn; musical supervision, Kevin Farrell; production stage manager, John W. Calder III. Opened Nov. 8, 2005. Reviewed Nov. 10, Running time: 2 HOURS 35 MIN.

With: Michiko Takemasa, Greg Zane, Kim Jones, Amy Chang, Jessica Wu, Yuki Ozeki, Nicholas Cook, Jellyn Echon, Eric Liew, Carol Nelson, Jacquelyn Zen, Eileen Ward, Enrique Acevedo, Andrew Cheng, Edward Dias, Vivien Eng, Kuma Kimora, Scott Kitajima, LaToya D. Martin, Christine Nuki, Rommel Ochoa, Mayumi Omagan, Yuki Ozeki, Mata RS Perkins, Joshua Schutteis, Nancy Yang, Zhenjun Zhang.

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