The King and I at The 5th Avenue Theatre
The oft-told tale of English schoolteacher Mrs. Anna Leonowens and her adventures in the court of the King of Siam in the 1860s gets another encore at the 5th Avenue with the tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I starring Stefanie Powers. Director Baayork Lee (who played the tiny Princess Ying Yaowalak in the original Broadway production) preserves the original version of the show almost to a fault, while trimming it of a few scenes and bits of songs to keep the pace livelier for contemporary audiences. There is none of the underlying sexual tension between Anna and the King that informed the Christopher Renshaw version which starred Donna Murphy and Lou Diamond Phillips on Broadway. Additionally, the show is angled to be a star vehicle for Powers, so the question is, is TV’s Mrs. Hart star enough to fill the shoes of Gertrude Lawrence, Deborah Kerr, Murphy and so many others? The answer is a resounding, sometimes!
Powers mines more comedy out of Mrs. Anna than anyone I have ever seen, and in moments such as Mrs. A’s soliloquy “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” this works very well. But there are wobbly moments when the character needs to be serious and emotional. We don’t really buy her being sympathetic to forbidden lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, though in her dialogue as well as in “Hello Young Lovers” she tells them (and us) that she is. And Powers' opening number “I Whistle A Happy Tune” is about her least successful vocal of the evening, though happily most of her other numbers reveal a respectably attractive if modest singing voice, which is far superior to that of the last Mrs. Anna seen at the 5th, Hayley Mills (who otherwise gave a superior acting performance). Billed beneath the title, and accorded the kind of supporting actor status to even the great Yul Brynner when he first played the role on Broadway, Ronobir Lahiri brings a bit too much shtick to his early playing of the King, but as the King learns from Mrs. Anna, Lahiri develops a subtler, more touching performance. More’s the pity, with the King's few songs that Lahiri is doing a cut-down version of the King’s “A Puzzlement,” as it is very well handled. As for the pairing of the two, Lahiri reads so much younger than the still lovely but obviously more mature Powers that any possible romantic spark between them is flattened, as is the bang that should come half way through when they sweep across the stage in “Shall We Dance?” The audience, at least on opening night, was not moved to applause within the number, just a polite hand at the end.
The most satisfying principal performance vocally and in terms of character shading and approach is Catherine Mieun Choi as the King’s head wife, Lady Thiang. When she wraps her dulcet tones around the haunting Rodgers strains of “Something Wonderful” it is most wonderful indeed. Martin Sola and Nita Baxani have the vocal chops to impress with their “We Kiss in A Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed,” but the impossibly brisk tempos set by the orchestra drain any real emotionality from them. Allan Mangasser is a captivating royal heir as Prince Chulalongkorn, but Patrick Scott Minor is a bit too precious and a bit too far into his adolescence as young Louis Leonowens.
Susan Kikuchi’s choreography of the celebrated “Small House of Uncle Thomas” is essentially a recreation of what Jerome Robbins did originally, but a lively one, exuberantly performed. The physical trappings of this tour are all high caliber, the Siamese children are adorable, and the show does clip right along. This The King and I ultimately ends up feeling like a well done summer stock version, and will please the undemanding and those not colored by having seen it done with more suitable casting and originality.
The King and I runs through October 9, 2005 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. For more on this show and their season, go to www.5thavenuetheatre.org.