YUL BRYNNER is back in town with "The King and I," the Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut that opened on Broadway 33 years ago, produced at least seven leave-'em-humming standards for eternity, made him a star (and the most famous bald pate in the country). Brynner, who recently weathered a battle with cancer, has performed the show more than 4,300 times, without missing a one.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
But if this most recent rendition of the venerable "King" (which started its tour here in February 1981) is indeed bound for Broadway, as it is said to be, it's in need of a 100,000-mile checkup and some basic repairs. The "King" at the Warner Theater is a bit battered-looking and down at the sandal-heels.
Producer/director Mitch Leigh has given short shrift to the book and Jerome Robbins' choreography, rushing through the play as if it were an evening of scenes, a mere framework for the songs. The orchestrations of the memorized melodies sound familiar, but rather thin, like an original cast album that's been played till the grooves are worn. And the downright dowdy costumes and sets would seem more at home in Sears' budget basement than in opulent Siam.
Something should be done about the Warner's exceedingly erratic amplification system, which created a crackly static crunch when it wasn't making an annoying echo. The entire first act, and much of the second sounded as if they were being performed over the public address system at an airport.
Although it's wonderful to hear songs like "Hello, Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance" and "We Kiss in a Shadow" again, whatever the circumstances, it's Brynner that's the obvious reason for giving this show one more go-round.
Carol Channing has her "Dolly," Anthony Quinn has his "Zorba," and 68-year-old Brynner has his "King." The role of the Siamese king who butts up against Western culture in the deceptively prim form of an English schoolteacher seems to be as deeply ingrained in him as the lines on his fierce, feline countenance. Though his voice seems a bit diminished, Brynner remains an imposing presence, retaining the monarch's scowl and swagger while letting his sly, sweet humor peek through those impossibly arched eyebrows.
As the charming schoolmarm Anna Leonowens, Mary Beth Peil has a lovely coloratura soprano and a gracious and graceful stage presence. Peil succeeds in bringing out the drama in her songs, but her efforts are defeated from the outset by the technological glitches.
And as Crown Prince Chulalongkom, young Araby Abaya shows off a sturdy voice and the promise of a future King. But apart from Abaya and the two leads, there's not much to watch here. In place of emotion, the cast, including a baker's dozen of admittedly adorable children, hides behind the smokescreen of a handful of accents of indeterminate origin, many of which in their monosyllabic silliness would sound equally at home in a Tarzan movie.
Only Brynner and Peil have the strength (and time) to create anything near a living character, and though Brynner shines in several songs and playful moments, one wishes for him a more fittingly regal send- off.
And all the rest and so forth. THE KING AND I -- At the Warner Theater through December 23.