The real stars of the touring production of "The King and I" at the Mechanic Theatre aren't the king and Hayley Mills, though she gets top billing. The real stars are the lavish, Tony Award-winning sets and costumes.
From the opening image of a seaport bustling with beggars, fruit peddlers and scurrying children, to the first glimpse of the throne room at the palace, where the glistening gold decor and costumes of the precision dancers suggest a magnificent gilt music box, it's easy to see the splendor that appealed to Anna Leonowens, British governess to the royal children in 19th-century Siam.
Though Australian director Christopher Renshaw hasn't re-invented this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in the manner of, say, the revival of "Carousel" that was at the Lyric last season, he has approached it with a greater sense of multi-cultural respect than has been true of previous incarnations.
The politically correct term "multi-cultural" comes up because this 1951 musical, as well as the novel "Anna and the King of Siam," on which it is based (not to mention the 1946 movie version of that novel as well as Leonowens' own memoirs), all chronicle a time when Westerners would only consider another culture civilized if it adhered to Western standards. A dated concept, to say the least, it is nonetheless central to this musical.
Renshaw's production, which won the 1996 Tony for best revival, can't ignore this jingoistic attitude; after all, in one of the key scenes, the king convinces the British that he is fit to rule -- and not a "barbarian" -- by mimicking British customs. But Renshaw allows us to appreciate the glory of Siamese culture -- in little ways, such as translating bits of text into the Thai language, and in bigger ones, such as decorating the scenery with designs inspired by paintings of Siam (as Thailand was known until 1939).
Augmenting this sensibility is Hayley Mills' warm, accepting Anna. Mills radiates her character's awe for the wonders around her. And it's no mystery why the royal children take to her. When she's with them, her delight is as fresh as their own; it's like having wide-eyed Pollyanna as your teacher. Who could resist? True, her singing voice is thin. But there are so many riches in this production, Mills' singing can almost be overlooked, especially when you consider that the role wasn't written for an opera singer, it was written for actress/comedian Gertrude Lawrence.
The role of the king wasn't written for a particular star, but it became inextricably linked with the actor who created it -- Yul Brynner. With that in mind, Renshaw has wisely chosen an actor, Vee Talmadge, who bears no resemblance to Brynner, and the difference is accentuated by having Talmadge wear a gray-streaked wig that falls well below his shoulders.
Talmadge makes a commanding monarch but doesn't disguise the king's genuine frustration when the modernization he craves repeatedly flies in the face of his country's traditions. And though his relationship with Anna is more a meeting of the minds than the heart, the buoyant polka scene, "Shall We Dance?", still conveys more than enough joy to elicit spontaneous applause.
The best voice in the show belongs to Naomi Itami (an opera singer who is leaving the tour next week to get married). Itami's stirring rendition of Lady Thiang's "Something Wonderful" is precisely that. A highly moving performance is also given by Luzviminda Lor as the Burmese slave, Tuptim, who is an unwilling gift to the king. In the crucial subplot about her forbidden love for Lun Tha (Timothy Ford Murphy), Lor not only sings with fervor and beauty, but projects emotions from sorrow to defiance to romantic passion.
And we can't forget the children. One of the most charming aspects of Renshaw's direction is that he lets them behave -- or rather, misbehave -- like children, instead of merely looking adorable, which they do with ease. When introduced to Anna in the "March of the Siamese Children," one excitedly rushes up to her, neglecting to bow to the king; another, terrified, runs off several times before working up the courage to approach Anna and her formidable hooped skirts; and a third, bespectacled, barely looks up from his book to greet her.
Most of all, however, this production, with costumes by Roger Kirk and scenery by Brian Thompson, conjures up a world of such sumptuous beauty that you're mystified at how any other culture could have dared consider the Siamese barbarians.
'The King and I'
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; through June 1
Pub Date: 5/22/97