Marie Osmond, cranky? Strange as it may seem, it’s sourness, not sweetness, that’s the dominant note in the erstwhile wholesome TV star’s performance as the governess in the road company of “The King and I,” now at the Pantages for a two-week stint.
Osmond looks properly lovely in Roger Kirk’s voluminous Victorian skirts, and she has a pretty soprano voice that does justice to Anna’s string of dainty Rodgers & Hammerstein gems: “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance.” But she’s not the deftest of actresses: When her Anna is angry, she’s angry; when she’s sweet, she’s sweet — and never the twain shall meet. There’s a lack of shading in the performance that makes this governess seem to be suffering a split personality.
And she keeps reverting to the less pleasant persona: Just when you think Anna’s warmed up to the King, off she goes on another sputtering fit of sarcastic petulance about that damned house he’d promised her. Watching them fight in front of the kids is a little too disturbing, so when the King overrides her whining with a single, supercilious word — “Silence!” — you can hardly blame him.
It helps that Victor Talmadge is rather more endearing as the King, bringing a saucy, childish impudence to his sparring with Anna that leavens the conflict with comedy. He is duly charismatic and commanding when needed, as well.
Visually, the show is an eyeful. It’s a facsimile of the Broadway production, with Brian Thomson’s Tony-winning sets lovingly reproduced, shimmering with burnished reds and golds. Kirk’s costumes, also Tony-lauded, are a riot of beading and embroidery on hotly colored silks and velvets. They give a sparkling lift to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which is the highlight of Jerome Robbins’ choreography, and is wonderfully performed here.
In fact the show’s visual allure largely outstrips its musical and emotional appeal. The orchestra sounded rather anemic, and the lack of spark between the leads provides for a few too many longueurs.
But toward the close of act one, something wonderful happens — namely “Something Wonderful,” sung with exquisite intensity and beauty by Helen Yu, a Korean-born mezzo-soprano with a rich, smoky voice and a background in opera. In her single song, Yu’s Lady Thiang brings to the show the emotional focus and captivating musicality that’s generally lacking, and suddenly — albeit briefly — the evening is thrilling, musical theater at its best.