The version of "The King and I" now at the Hummingbird Centre is billed as the Tony Award-winning Broadway production, now on national tour.
This is essentially correct, despite a few apparent concessions for ease of portability. Many of what I suspect were hard sets in New York are now seemingly re-created using gorgeous, gold-flecked, gossamer curtains of rich colors, tucked and partially pulled to one side at the bottom in graceful swirling contours. The care with which this was done preserves the advertised feeling of an "authentic Thai experience."
More important, the well-known spirit that hovered over this musical in all its celebrated prior Broadway productions is quite well re-created here, though the emphasis is shifted slightly away from the domineering role of the King to the dogged determination of Anna, the English governess.
In that role, Hayley Mills projects a soft, youthful, feminine image but maintains underneath a core of conviction about her mission to tutor the King's many children which is natural and convincing. Mills' voice is, like her character, soft and sweet, rhythmically clean and crisp in such songs as "Getting to Know You," but elsewhere not all that secure in intonation, and especially prone to flatting on rising intervals.
Victor "Vee" Talmadge is the King of Siam, putting forth a persona that carefully avoids any imitation of the Yul Brynner image. His head, for example, is not bald but has long black shoulder-length hair pulled back and tied. Vocally, he is also his own man, strong and assertive in the Act 2 "Song of the King," and appropriately equivocal in the humorous "A Puzzlement." The interaction of the King and Anna found both Talmadge and Mills at their best during the episodes involving the protocol which insisted that the King's head be higher than anyone else's.
Ernest Abuba was a very stolid and intimidating presence as the Kralahome, while the clear and appealing voices of Timothy Ford Murphy and Luzviminda Lor were very touching as Lun Tha and Tuptim in their duet "We Kiss in a Shadow." But the unexpected vocal knockout came from Helen Yu as Lady Chiang. Her "Something Wonderful," perhaps the most underrated song in the show, revealed a thrillingly warm vibrant mezzo voice, full of color and passion.
The dancing is also a strong point of this production. Jerome Robbins' original choreography was retained for the ingenious and whimsical play-within-a-play, the episode called "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." The allegory was full of Oriental understatement, with Eliza running away on just one foot during the "King Simon of Legree" sequence and the portrayal of the discontent of the King's subjects similarly treated.
Additional new choreography by Lar Lubovitch was also excellent, including the Act 2 "Procession of the White Elephants" and, particularly, the graceful arcs formed by the women's forearms and hands, with extremely elongated fingernails, during the early "Royal Dance Before the King" scene.
The King and I
Rating:*** 1/2 Musical comedy by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Featuring Hayley Mills and Vee Talmadge, directed by Christo pher Renshaw, in touring pro duction by Dodger Endemols Theatricals. In repertory in the Hummingbird Centre, Toronto, through Sun day. Tickets, (416) 872-2222.