Winding up a 22-city cross-country tour, “The King and I” has settled down in Newark with a perfectly lovely Victorian schoolmarm at the helm and the luscious legacy of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s durable score. The lavish bus and truck production has comfortably weathered the half-century mark bolstered by picturesque design and Baayork Lee’s well-focused staging.
Anna Leonowens, the dauntless schoolteacher imported from Britain to Siam to educatethe king’s expansive household of children, is played with considerable spunk by Stefanie Powers. In addition to the right mix of reserve and stately beauty, she also possesses a lovely soprano voice, only glimpsed when she appeared as Margo Channing in a Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Applause” a few seasons back.
Powers’ widowed tutor reveals maternal warmth when she gathers the children about her to “Whistle a Happy Tune.” There’s witty defiance in the response to her employer’s demands, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and most embracing is her tender blessing to the star-crossed sweethearts, “Hello, Young Lovers.”
The king is no longer quite the star turn once fashioned by Yul Brynner. Ronobir Lahiri is perhaps the most youthful in a long line of theatrical kings. He’s certainly not a cuddly emperor, and manages to conveyarrogance and royal authority. But the childish needling humor and warm condescension never seem to successfully surface. His delightful, quizzical delivery of “A Puzzlement,” however, is everything it should be.
Catherine MiEun Choi is a wise Lady Thiang, and she makes “Something Wonderful” exactly that. As Tuptim, the errant princess, Nita Baxani together with Martin Sola as her doomed lover deliver two of the most sensuous ballads in the R&H canon, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” The romantic fervor of the theater’s golden age survives with considerable distinction.
A batch of barefoot tots scurry across the stage representing a small parcel of the king’s 60-some offspring. The extraordinary capacity of Rodgers’ melodies to charm and seduce an audience is in evidence as they enter the throne room in “The March of the Siamese Children.”
Director Lee, who appeared in the original Broadway production at the age of 5 and is best known for creating the role of Connie in “A Chorus Line,” has harnessed the show’s physical beauty and its intrinsic exotic flavor.
Still the centerpiece of act two, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet parody, as originally choreographed by Jerome Robbins, remains an engaging sideshow
Kenneth Foy’s bejeweled set design is especially sumptuous for a traveling company. The picture-postcard Thailand is richly dressed with golden Buddha statues and high-columned anterooms for visual allure, enhanced by Roger Kirk’s traditional period costumes and sweeping hoop skirts.