`King and I' has air of precision but is endearing

Musical: After a stilted beginning, the performance wins over the audience with interesting characters, lovely music and a good story.

Theater Review

March 02, 2000|By Nelson Pressley | Nelson Pressley,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The first hour of "The King and I" at Toby's Dinner Theatre moves like gangbusters. Director Toby Orenstein's actors hit their marks under pinpoint lights, scenes get shifted briskly in the dark and the whole thing has a remarkable air of efficiency.

It's too efficient. For that first hour, it's like watching military maneuvers, and the warmth of this great Rodgers and Hammerstein musical doesn't begin to come through until near intermission. But the show settles down in time, growing more satisfying as it gradually draws the audience into the characters.

"The King and I" is part culture clash, part old-fashioned romance. In the play, Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher, takes a job teaching in the court of the King of Siam in the mid-19th century. She is appalled at his borderline barbaric behavior, but attracted by his ferocious curiosity and occasional displays of common sense. He is appalled by her impudence -- such independence in a woman! -- but attracted by her diplomacy and wisdom.

Bill Howe is barefoot and imperious as the King, barking commands and blustering through conversations. The King is a bully, but Howe is careful not to push the character too far. Just when you think the King's knee-jerk tyranny will make him irredeemably repulsive, he shows a little thoughtfulness, or makes a kind gesture. The role of the King is not often well-sung, so Howe's pleasant voice is a bonus.

As Anna, Adrienne Athanas projects a gentleness that charms the King's children, and a sadness that makes "Hello, Young Lovers" more bittersweet than usual. Athanas and Howe go through their solo numbers in the first act faster than you can digest what's going on, but they are adept at showing how their characters' fighting subtly becomes flirting.

The show really hits its stride with the ballet sequence, "Small House of Uncle Thomas." This adaptation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is devised by Tuptim, one of the King's concubines. (Obviously, she has a point to make about slavery.) Ilona Kessel's choreography doesn't make strong demands in terms of balletic technique, but it's an enchanting, moving bit of storytelling.

The music is among the loveliest in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon, featuring such well- known songs as "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance." Nearly everything is sung well under Douglas Lawler's musical direction. As the oppressed, shy Tuptim, Teri Rohan sings "My Lord and Master" with a rich formality, while Lynn R. Sigler's Lady Thiang makes a particularly heartfelt impression with "Something Wonderful" (in which she makes a romantic case to Anna on behalf of the King).

The colorful costumes by Christine Pruitt and Dan Duda capture the exoticism of Siam in the usual ways, and the lighting and set design by Dave Eske is, well, efficient. The show looks and moves like it has a purpose. Luckily, by the ending, it feels purposeful, too.

Toby's Dinner Theatre presents "The King and I," by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, at 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, at 8: 15 p.m. Tuesdays; at 12: 30 p.m. and 8: 15 p.m. Wednesdays; at 8: 15 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 12: 30 p.m. and 7: 15 p.m. Sundays (buffet served two hours before curtain). Tickets: $19.50-$37. Information: 410-730- 8311.

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