East and West meet cute in a perky 'King and I'

Stephanie Powers stars in a dutiful, eager production at Pantages.

By Rob Kendt
Special to The Times

April 7, 2005

Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I" is much more than a cutesy pageant featuring pretty ditties. But first-time viewers may not guess that from the under-powered tour-stop production now resting its giant hoop skirt at the Pantages.

Director Baayork Lee inherits bits and pieces of Christopher Renshaw's definitive 1996 Broadway revival: Roger Kirk's Thai-fusion costumes, Susan Kikuchi's restaging of Jerome Robbins' angular original choreography. But Lee's ensemble, an uneven troupe at best, goes through the show's paces with a kind of dutiful eagerness, and sometimes not even that.

Headlining the cast is an agelessly perky and prim Stefanie Powers as English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, imported by an autocratic Siamese king (Ronobir Lahiri) to educate his brood — and, willy-nilly, his court and himself — in the baffling mores and manners of the West.

Powers gives the role an entirely pleasant one-note star turn — a combination of grand dame and schoolmarm that works best in Anna's sunnier moments but rings shrill whenever this teacher must swallow some bitter lessons herself.

Although her voice is entirely adequate, switching gears between roughly three registers to cover the range of her songs, Powers rushes idiosyncratically through too many of her phrases, keeping conductor Kep Kaeppeler on his toes. This peculiar habit gives Anna's angry soliloquy, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?," a bracing immediacy, but it cheats the long, lush lines of "Hello, Young Lovers" and even the lilting melody of "Getting to Know You."

As the hot-tempered but sneakily clever king, Lahiri has an engaging presence but a shortage of gravity. His cocky insistence manages to generate sparks with the self-satisfied Powers, but the balance of star power seldom tilts convincingly his way.

As for vocal power, "The King and I" is a strange musical in that it gives its big, heart-stopping ballads not to its title leads but to ardent young Tuptim (Michelle Liu Coughlin) and Lun Tha (Martin Sola). In a few perfunctory clinches, these two lovebirds toss off the sweet "We Kiss in a Shadow" and the slightly less inspired "I Have Dreamed," which contains perhaps the oddest — and, given Tuptim's revealing costume, unimaginative — opening line of any show tune: "I have dreamed that your arms are lovely." Sola has a robust heartthrob tenor, but Coughlin is brittle and wobbly.

The score's secret weapon is "Something Wonderful," that glowing paean to the irreducible complications of a great man. It's delivered here with perfect operatic aplomb — i.e., we hear every note piercingly but miss every other word — by Catherine MiEun Choi's Lady Thiang.

The show has two other showstoppers that shatter the mold, and our defenses: the relentlessly adorable "March of the Siamese Children" and that extraordinary extended bit of Asian minstrelsy, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." The marching tykes are a reliably charming bunch, and the perversely beautiful story-theater ballet of "Uncle Thomas" ranks as this production's high point, in large part thanks to Natalie Turner's spry, stoic Eliza.

The high point ought to be, arguably, the marvelous unconsummated foreplay of "Shall We Dance?," in which Anna and the King share a climactic moment of abandon before retreating back behind their insurmountable differences.

And the show's final bittersweet conciliation, registering a quiet triumph of West over East, ought to stir rich and complicated emotions.

Alas, this isn't that kind of "King and I." Every now and then it does something wonderful, but for the most part this bus-and-truck white elephant treads only lightly in the big footprints of a Broadway classic.


'The King and I'

Where: Broadway/LA at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays;

1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: April 17

Price: $42.50-$67.50

Contact: (213) 365-3500

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes