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Staging, not stars, carries 'King and I'

People have a lot more to think about these days than a 53-year-old Broadway show that's no longer politically correct, if it ever was, so the Wang Theatre wasn't anywhere near full last night for the latest touring production of "The King and I."

The story of how King Mongkut of Siam was educated by an Englishwoman he had engaged to teach his children has been popular as a novel, a film, a musical, a movie musical, a TV series, even an animated film. The protagonists don't fall in love, although they learn to love each other, which is interesting, but the point that the Siamese would be better off if only they were more like the British belongs to another era.

What keeps the show alive is the glistening score by Richard Rodgers and two great starring parts. The best thing about the current touring production, however, is not the stars, but the ensemble effort -- the staging; the opulent sets -- all red and gold, with a stunning skyscape of the palace in Bangkok; the glittering costumes. And the production has been put together by people who know their way around "The King and I." The gifted director, Baayork Lee, was one of the king's children in the original Broadway cast; Jerome Robbins's choreography for "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" has been recreated by Susan Kikuchi, whose mother, the great dancer Yuriko, was Robbins's assistant in 1951.

The historical Anna Leonowens spent her 30th birthday in Siam, but the role usually goes to more mature performers. It would be interesting to see a young Anna make the mistakes of youth rather than those of someone old enough to know better. Still, at 58, Sandy Duncan looks great, despite some hideous red wigs. She's spunky, likable, agile; speaks her lines in the accents of Julie Andrews; sings with a lingering bit of sunshine in her voice; and maneuvers a hoopskirt like a spaceship coming in for a perfect landing. She smiles indomitably, even through tears. She gives a performance, like a trouper, which is not quite the same thing as creating a characterization.

Martin Vidnovic has been in and out of "The King and I" since 1977 and gives voice to the king in the animated version. Onstage, he sounds great in song and in speech, but looks like an old-style New York taxi driver, not Asian at all. Luz Lor is touching as the unhappy princess Tuptim, and lofts some pretty soprano top notes. Her beloved, Martin Sola, looked ridiculous, stripped to the waist with a microphone wire running up his back, but his singing was OK. The best vocal performance came from Catherine Mieun Choi as the principal wife, Lady Thiang -- she boasts dignity of manner and unusual beauty of tone. The other performances were capable, and the company is big enough to fill the huge stage. There were about 20 players in the pit, enough to create some color and nuance, although Robert Russell Bennett is no longer credited for the orchestrations. There was room in the program to thank "the official cough drop of `The King and I,' " but not to list the players who were making the music.

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