Whistling a happy tune: No puzzlement about 'The King and I' at the 5th Avenue

If you've seen the 1956 film adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster "The King and I," you know what to expect from this umpteenth touring version now playing at 5th Avenue Theatre. But in this case that's not a problem.

Created by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (book and lyrics), the 1951 Tony-winner still boasts a timeless charm. So this touring salute to its retro splendor includes the lovely songs, adorable children, wonderful orchestra, dazzling costumes, visual opulence and the recreation of Jerome Robbins' original choreography. Rodgers and Hammerstein's glowing score soars with beautiful - and indisputable - Broadway standards, including "Getting to Know You," "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Hello, Young Lovers" and the heart-thumping "Shall We Dance?"

R&H's musical theater classic, based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel "Anna and the King of Siam," follows the relationship between an adventuresome and determined English widow who travels to 19th-century Siam to teach the king's favorite wives and 60-plus children - he claims he's a late starter. Anna soon finds His Royal Highness to be her greatest challenge, but over time their cultural clashes soften into an unspoken love. A secondary storyline involves the doomed secret affair between the King's newest concubine, Tuptim, and Lun Tha, the emissary who delivers her to Siam as a gift from the King of Burma.

Directed by Baayork Lee (a child performer in the original Broadway production), the current tour of "The King and I" stars Stefanie Powers of TV's "Hart to Hart" fame as Anna, with Ronobir Lahiri as the King of Siam. Powers may not be a natural Anna, but she endows her performance with sparkling personality, playful physicality and strong vocals, though her voice strikes an occasional harsh note. She almost topples into Grandma-land on the feel-good "Getting to Know You," but absolutely shines on the pithy "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" And even if she and Lahiri don't quite deliver romantic sizzle in "Shall We Dance?," the luscious waltz still tugs at your heart as they whirl around the stage.

There were opening-night rumblings in the audience about 62-year-old Powers being a bit long in the tooth to play Anna. And truthfully, there are a few moments in her singing when her voice sounds more like Jessica Fletcher than a 30s-something English soprano. But if the genders were reversed and the King were 30 years older than the schoolteacher, this would probably not be an issue.

Of course, the original Broadway show catapulted an unknown Yul Brynner into stardom and spawned the movie, for which he won an Oscar. He was so dynamic, his performance as the King has never been equaled, though many have left strong impressions. Lahiri may lack the raw virility and simmering brutality of the imposing Siamese monarch, but he grows on you as the musical plays out, starting with his turn in "A Puzzlement." By Act Two, Lahiri disarms your reservations with his infectious enthusiasm and comedic charm, most evident on the King's signature "et cetera."

Vocally, it is the supporting singers who reign on 5th Avenue's stage. As Lun Tha, Martin Sola's melodious voice flows forth so smoothly you could listen to him forever. Sorry, in this production his duet, "We Kiss in the Shadow" with Nita Baxani as Tuptim, has been foolishly shortened - it ends before they can pucker up. Luckily, the two lovers have another number in Act Two. And though the stiff staging for "I Have Dreamed" stifles their theatrical ardor, their singing remains sublime. As the song ends, Baxani turns that amazing high note into pianissimo perfection with her lilting operatic soprano.

But the vocal triumph in this production belongs to mezzo Catherine Mieun Choi as Lady Thiang. She possesses one of those voices that send shivers up and down your spine. Choi's breathtaking rendition of "Something Wonderful" beautifully complements the wise compassion and regal strength in her portrayal of the King's number-one wife.

Kenneth Foy's golden Buddhas and lavish palace provide a visually exquisite setting for the musical action, matched by Roger Kirk's vibrantly colored and lushly bejeweled costumes and headdresses. And thanks to Susan Kikuchi's faithful recreation of Robbins' original choreography, Tuptim's poignant interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery classic, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, still unfolds with ironic grace and beauty.  

As the final curtain descends, you leave the theater once more humming the show's marvelous songs. But in a wishful moment, you wonder why 5th Avenue didn't produce this musical with local stars in the leads. "The King and I" always attracts a huge audience - even more so, given the ethnic diversity of Seattle. 5th Avenue regular Patti Cohenour would make a sensational and age-appropriate Anna, and the talented Timothy McCuen Piggee a fabulous king. Their pairing might be "something wonderful." Perhaps even magnificent. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.[[In-content Ad]]