Long live `The King'

Theater Review

February 03, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

As the king himself might put it, there's a lot of "etc., etc., etc." in The King and I.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical works best when it's showcased with all the trimmings. It demands opulence and splendor. And Kenneth Foy's red, gold and black set and Roger Kirk's glittery, silk, Tony Award-winning costumes meet those demands.

But at its core, as the title indicates, The King and I is the story of two people - the headstrong king of 1860s Siam (now Thailand) and the equally headstrong British teacher he hires to instruct his children.

The King and I was originally created as a star vehicle - not for Yul Brynner, though he became inextricably associated with the role of the king. No, Rodgers and Hammerstein were writing for Gertrude Lawrence, the actress who created the role of the teacher, Anna Leonowens.

Under the direction of Baayork Lee, the touring version at the Hippodrome Theatre once again assigns star billing to the actress playing Anna. This time, that actress is Stefanie Powers, and though she looks elegant and displays plenty of Anna's innate gumption, her casting is - as the king again might put it - something of a "puzzlement."

The problem isn't entirely that Powers is a bit old for Anna (the last time she starred in Baltimore, in 1996, she played long-in-the-tooth Margo Channing in Applause). Powers' acting has enough gusto to allow a gracious audience to overlook age.

A bigger problem is that a voice that sounded nasal in Applause now sounds brash, even strained. While Powers can get away with a character actress' delivery of "I Whistle a Happy Tune," she's simply not up to the lush strains of a romantic ballad like "Hello, Young Lovers."

As the king, Ronobir Lahiri is vocally adept, and he also finds the wit and intelligence hidden beneath the king's arrogance. His king is a complex man - tied to tradition, but modern-thinking; smart enough to know what he doesn't know; proud enough of his heritage not to let it be overrun by Western ways.

Along with all the opulence, The King and I also requires a bevy of adorable children, and the current youngsters easily pass that test. In addition, Catherine MiEun Choi as the king's No. 1 wife and Luz Lor as unlucky-in-love Tuptim make such chestnuts as "Something Wonderful" and "I Have Dreamed," respectively, the musical high points. And, as re-created by Susan Kikuchi, Jerome Robbins' choreography continues to enchant.

In the end, despite Powers' vocal limitations, when she and Lahiri's king break into a rousing polka in "Shall We Dance?" two stubborn individuals and two disparate cultures come together in a whirl of music and dance. A lesson in cultural understanding, for better or worse, it remains as poignant and pertinent as it did when the show debuted a half-century ago.

The King and I

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 13

Tickets: $24-$69

Call: 410-547-SEAT

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