Sandy Duncan, a good candidate for the pantheon of American stage sweethearts, recently hosed "money men" for ruining the Broadway musical. Making a bundle off proven vehicles and then getting out is their chief concern, she alleged, while the "visionary" producers of yore would plow their profits into developing new material -- and new theatrical life.
For evidence, she pointed to her current show, a lavish 60-week touring revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1951 hit, "The King and I."
Well, maybe so. But however much it may symbolize the geriatric state of musical theater, the gorgeously packaged production, which arrived on Wolf Trap's Filene Center stage Tuesday night for a short run, suffers primarily from problems of execution -- weak direction and a narrow performance in one principal role.
As Anna Leonowens, the widow who comes to Siam in the early 1860s to tutor the king's children, Duncan rises like a warm, new star in a very old night sky. Her vocals aren't powerful, but they manage to be both sturdy and pretty, particularly on her heartfelt rendition of "Hello, Young Lovers." Her Anna is graceful, a lady to the core, a woman of principle, unfailingly generous and patient with her young charges.
Meanwhile, Kenneth Foy's elaborately realistic panels and set pieces zoom in and out, creating the feel of everything from a palace corridor to the Bangkok skyline. Roger Kirk's lushly royal period costumes evoke a Technicolor land of silk and jewels. Choreographer Susan Kikuchi faithfully re-creates Jerome Robbins's original East-meets-West pas de deux and arabesques. And cascading around everything is that lovely score, arguably the most elegant the authors ever wrote.
Several lovely voices bring it to life, most notably that of Luz Lor, who as Tuptim, a young Burmese woman given as a gift to the king, sings "My Lord and Master" with forlorn beauty. As Lady Thiang, Catherine MiEun Choi delivers "Something Wonderful" with a world of emotion and soul.
Trouble awaits, however, at the center. Despite the culture clashes in the story and a subplot between Tuptim and her lover, everything of course turns on Anna's repeated demand that the king make good on his promise to provide her with a house, a promise he claims to have forgotten. Much is implied and reflected in this tension -- conflicting ideas about the role of women, for instance.
More important, though, is the implication of what Anna and the king begin to feel for each other. The ongoing struggle over who will ultimately win the argument quickly becomes a cover for growing romantic feelings that each is too proud to reveal. That is, until their hearts take over, pouring out in the big number, "Shall We Dance?"
But director Baayork Lee has paid scant attention to this, allowing Anna and the king (Martin Vidnovic) to engage in what seems a businesslike battle of wills until the dialogue demands otherwise. But it's too late then. The romance ends up feeling forced rather than inevitable.
Vidnovic doesn't help by devoting almost all his energy to striking imperious poses and just trying in general to look kingly in a different way than Yul Brynner did. True, no small feat, but Lou Diamond Phillips succeeded by delivering a full, lively performance on Broadway in the mid-1990s. Vidnovic's performance is missing one vital element -- charm. With it, the king's appeal expands exponentially. Without it, he's just a curio, an oddity that piques interest but generates no chemistry.
Duncan may be right about the money men, at least in part. The lack of a convincing romance at its heart only throws the dated parts of "The King and I" -- sweet primitive people, patronizing Western assumptions about the East -- into relief. Which, in turn, throws the lack of big, new, vibrant musicals into painful relief. But given this production's other strengths, a convincing romance between two equally well-acted and -directed leads would demonstrate the value and viability of injecting an old warhorse with fresh blood.
The King and I. Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, based on a novel by Margaret Landon. Directed by Baayork Lee. Lighting by John McLain; sound, Abe Jacob and Mark Cowburn. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Sunday at Wolf Trap Filene Center, 1645 Trap Rd., Vienna. Call 703-218-6500.