By hook, crook or Equity concession, Atlanta's Theater of the Stars has figured out how to tour classic tuners without visibly skimping either on cast size or production values. The weird casting of the irrepressibly perky and zesty Sandy Duncan as the morally sturdy Anna Leonowens takes some swallowing.

By hook, crook or Equity concession, Atlanta’s Theater of the Stars has figured out how to tour classic tuners without visibly skimping either on cast size or production values. The weird casting of the irrepressibly perky and zesty Sandy Duncan as the morally sturdy Anna Leonowens takes some swallowing. And Martin Vidnovic’s kinder, gentler King of Siam feels closer to Bill Clinton than Yul Brynner. Still, there’s no questioning the lush, elegant quality of the top-tier physical production, nor the appeal of a stage brimming with elegantly clad and bejeweled juveniles and wives.

Designer Kenneth Foy’s secret here is an inspired setting composed mainly of fabrics and gorgeously painted drops. The resulting set looks much bigger and more expensive than it presumably was — and it will fill huge roadhouses with an array of vistas that add just the right note of Eastern fantasy without ever becoming tacky. The production has a dignity that befits a beloved retro tuner. And in these economic times, that’s work of the highest order. If only there were a few more musicians in the pit.

Staged with reverence by the highly experienced Baayork Lee (who has cast mainly ethnically appropriate performers), this “King and I” still could lose some palpable stiffness. The ensemble often appears terrified of throwing off a stage picture by moving the wrong muscle. And it thuds to earth in places — the young lovers never soar as they should, nor does “Shall We Dance” roar with the passion of just-discovered affection.

But the famous set pieces — “March of the Siamese Children,” etc. — both look fabulous and are infused with a deeper sense of cultural authenticity than is usually the case. The precise “re-creation” of Jerome Robbins’ famous “Small House of Uncle Thomas” sequence reps truly remarkable work from all concerned.

More Cockney proletarian than genteel governess, Duncan is not a natural for Anna. Aside from the age issue, she struggles with the character’s requisite sense of moral authority. Instead of gradually developing a love for all things and people Siamese, she displays it in almost the first scene. On the other hand, there’s none of the typical Anna frostiness — Duncan oozes life and enthusiasm and good heart. It’s a genial, accessible performance.

The Mohawked Vidnovic’s approach also tends to telegraph the character’s softening before the script permits. And the King’s sudden demise — always a struggle to make credible — seems especially absurd here, given the younger King. But this performance, too, is lively and caring and fun.

Ideally, the show either needs to lighten up as a whole or deepen its two leads (the beautifully voiced Catherine MiEun Choi as Lady Thiang already has it just right). Now, it doesn’t have a consistent point of view. But given the ongoing hinterland hunger for the full monty in these WalMart days, this “King and I” surely will exceed most expectations.

The King and I

Benedum Center, Pittsburgh; 2,885 seats; $55 top

Production

A Pittsburgh Theater of the Stars and Independent Producers Network presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Baayork Lee. Jerome Robbins' original choreography re-created by Susan Kikuchi. Musical supervisor/conductor, Kevin Farrell.

Creative

Sets, Kenneth Foy; costumes, Roger Kirk; lighting, John McLain; sound, Abe Jacob, Mark Cowburn. Production stage manager, John W. Calder III. Opened June 15, 2004. Reviewed June 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Anna Leonowens - Sandy Duncan The King of Siam - Martin Vidnovic Lady Thiang - Catherine MiEun Choi Lun Tha - Martin Sola Tuptim - Luz Lor Captain Orton, Edward Ramsay - Hal Davis The Karalahome - Ronald M. Banks Prince Chulalongkorn - Lou Castro Louis - Patrick Minor
With: Natalie Turner, Enrique Acevedo, Nita Baxani, Ariel Bonilla, Sae La Chin, Cesar Cipriano, Michelle Liu Coughlin, Simeon Den, Yuka Fukuda, Kumi Kimura, Scott Kitajima, Jane Labanz, Leon Le, Yun Liang, Sumie Maeda, Allan Mangaser, Latoya D. Martin, Eng Kian Ooi, Atsuhisa Shinomiya, Sally Wong, Jessica Wu, Jellyn Anne Echon, Alexa Ehrlich, Ryan Hutchins, JaiQi Li, Cassie Mak, Jasmine Ruiz, John Ruiz, Josel Ruiz, Jeff Yalun, Ronald Yam.
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