A serviceable but by the numbers rendering of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the new “King and I” starring Stefanie Powers, somehow manages to make a classic property seem old-fashioned. Scenes play out predictably, and emotional explosions between the two title characters are hampered by rigid, over-deliberate direction.
At first it’s a relaxed comfort zone when governess Anna Leonowens (Stefanie Powers) arrives in Siam with son Louis (Patrick Minor) and points out her way of handling nervousness with “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” Powers isn’t just an actress trying to sing; she has a clear, pleasing voice ideally suited to the lilting Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. While her vocals sometimes lack dramatic urgency and color, they have their own period charm.
Powers combines the nobility of Irene Dunne with the occasionally haughty speech patterns of Edna Mae Oliver. Her British accent is crisp and bitingly accurate, and she exhibits appropriate strength standing up to the king (Ronobir Lahiri). We feel immediately that the unspoken sexuality between governess and ruler will be omitted, and the story will be strictly a saga of a woman teaching a barbarian how to be more tolerant and civilized.
This lack of chemical connection becomes increasingly problematic as the show goes on. To compensate for its absence, the king needs to be a towering figure, and Lahiri lacks the needed charismatic arrogance. He has joyous authority on “Shall We Dance,” and good comedy sense when announcing apologetically that he has only “67 children… but I started very late.” What he doesn’t have is a dangerous, threatening undercurrent, and crucial words in his “Puzzlement” number are drowned out by too much orchestra volume.
Since heated exchanges between Anna and the king don’t catch fire, many of the scenes feel long and talky. In general, there’s a literal, labored feeling, and a sense that everything could be speeded up.
Another weakness is the relationship between one of the King’s wives, Tuptim (Michelle Liu Coughlin) and her lover Lun Tha (Martin Sola). This peripheral pair sing “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in a Shadow” competently, without projecting enough underlying heartbreak and despair.
Coughlin digs more deeply into her character with “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Jerome Robbins’ “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” ballet about slavery that juxtaposes Eliza’s escape with Tuptim’s own desperate desire for freedom. Roger Kirk’s eyefilling costumes give the sequence a sparkling look, and use of a long flowing blue cloth to represent a river is effective. Susan Kikuchi recreates Robbins’ choreography with power and precision.
The production’s thrilling highlight is Catherine MiEun Choi’s richly affecting “Something Wonderful.” Choi’s voice is a beautiful instrument, and her thoughtful acting showcases the soul of a wise, compassionate woman who understands her husband’s weaknesses while crediting him with unceasing efforts to be a better ruler.