Article 130

'King' wears crown with regal style

"The King & I" is not only one of the best Broadway musicals of the 20th century - with well-written characters, a compelling story and instantly memorable songs - but it is also one of the easiest to appreciate for the second, third or 10th time. Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical retelling of the story of English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and Rama IV Phra Chom Klao Mongkut, king of Siam, contains a series of pivotal moments on which any production stands or falls.

Hawaii Opera Theatre takes a giant step outside the realm of operas and operettas with a production of "The King & I" that not only stands, but often soars.

It takes a moment to accept Richard Chamberlain as the king, but from that moment on the veteran actor makes the role his own. The HOT show never becomes a vanity piece in which the attraction is simply watching a celebrity do theater.

Chamberlain submerges himself in the role of a man who, as the king's No. 1 wife puts it, "thinks with his heart, and his heart is not always wise," and makes the king an engaging and thoroughly likable hero.

Chamberlain's first big musical number, "A Puzzlement," seemed a bit of a vocal stretch on opening night Friday, but by that time he already owned the role. His acting is excellent, as might be expected, and he adds distinct shadings to several pivotal moments. He captures every lyrical nuance of "Song of the King" and "Shall We Dance?" as well.

Jan Maxwell (Anna) has the voice and stage presence to be excellent as the schoolteacher but had several rough moments Friday. A malfunctioning microphone made it sound as though she were singing "I Whistle a Happy Tune" into a tin can, and she also flubbed the lyrics of a showcase number, "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" Maxwell got all the intentional mispronunciations right ("liber-tyne" instead of "liber-teen," for example) but appeared to lose her place at other points in the song.

Maxwell rose to the challenge of being Chamberlain's leading lady in all other respects. "Hello, Young Lovers" was the romantic highlight. "Getting to Know You" was charming, as well.

Her acting was convincing and nicely detailed. Her biggest scene with Chamberlain, when Anna allows the king to touch her as Western men do while dancing, is one of the best moments in the show. Chamberlain makes it clear that the king understands the significance of his "suggestion" that they dance like a Western couple. Maxwell portrays Anna's initial hesitancy with equal skill.

The scene not only soars, it reaches the heavens.

There are other delightful performances. Kristian Lei (Tuptim) displays the difference between singing lyrics and conveying their emotion with "My Lord and Master." Blossom Lam Hoffman (Lady Thiang) shows similar insight and vocal finesse as she makes "Something Wonderful" another glorious highlight.

Jordan Segundo (Lun Tha) makes an impressive stage debut as Tuptim's star-crossed boyfriend. Not all pop singers are convincing actors, and it says much for Segundo that he isn't overshadowed by Lei, a veteran stage actress. Their duets, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed," are fine showcases for both and bring the development of the Tuptim/Lun Tha subplot to fruition.

Director Martin Rabbett does an outstanding job in turning what could be a long hike through familiar territory into a delightful return to a wondrous kingdom. Nothing drags, nothing is rushed and, with the exception of a few hollow microphones, nothing is short of excellent.

The sets and costumes equal those in national touring companies, and the choreography (by Marie Takezawa, with an assist from Deanna Luster) adds value rather than simply extending the running time. The lengthy "'Small House of Uncle Thomas' Ballet" is a particularly delightful interlude.

Conductor Michael Ching and his orchestra add the final touch to this marvelous production.

Richard Chamberlain Online