Historians have suggested that schoolteacher Anna Leonowens exaggerated the importance of her role to the king of Siam in her books, which became a novel and then became the musical “The King and I.”
No matter. The woman who emerges as Anna in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is the embodiment of tact, worldliness and compassion, a woman who knew when to fight and when to hold her tongue and be gracious. In reality she may not have captured the heart of a king and been almost single-handedly responsible for the abolition of slavery in Thailand in the latter part of the 19th century, but you believe she could have.
At the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Marie Osmond plays Anna in the touring version of director Christopher Renshaw’s excellent 1996 Broadway revival. Osmond, who was surprisingly strong when she played Maria, the singing nun from “The Sound of Music” at the Pantages in 1994, is an adequate Anna, but she falters in important ways.
From Gertrude Lawrence to Deborah Kerr to Broadway’s Donna Murphy, actresses have brought a serious moral sense to the schoolteacher. This eludes Osmond, who brings not deep rue but a single, sad-ish look to the ballad “Hello Young Lovers.” She delivers “I Whistle a Happy Tune” as a ditty, with no acknowledgment of the terror Anna might feel coming alone to a foreign shore and culture. Her voice is pleasing but self-consciously careful in the upper register, so that her songs don’t quite soar at climactic moments.
Osmond is most alive in “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” her half-patter song in which she tells off the king, even though he is not there. As a phalanx of female servants helps her change from her enormous hoop skirt into a frilly white robe, she rants and complains and pouts prettily, becoming the first Anna to be more spoiled and petulant than the king himself.
Victor Talmadge is appealing as the king. He avoids references to Yul Brenner--there is little of that hand-on-hip, legs-apart blustering. He is emphatically sarcastic, and we laugh more with him than at him. He is also the opposite of bald; he wears a long ponytail that he sensually unleashes in “Shall We Dance,” one of the most rousing and charming seductions in musical theater. Here, he and Anna get within a hair’s breadth of making love (a Renshaw liberty).
The show, with its ornate red and gold set (by Brian Thomson), looks ravishing in the equally ornate Pantages Theatre. Helen Yu is a superb and dignified Lady Thiang; her version of “Something Wonderful” is masterful. “The March of the Siamese Children” and Jerome Robbins’ classic “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” are both beautifully staged (Susan Kikuchi supervises the Robbins choreography; Lars Lubovitch is responsible for musical staging and some additional choreography).
For those interested in sampling a new Anna, Maureen McGovern steps into the role May 29 for the final four performances.
* “The King and I,” Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. No evening show May 31. Ends May 31. $27-$55. (213) 365-3500. Running time: 3 hours.
Ian Stuart: Captain Orton, Sir Edward Ramsey
Ricky Ullman: Louis Leonowens
Marie Osmond: Anna Leonowens
Victor Talmadge: The king of Siam
Timothy Ford Murphy: Lun Tha
Luzviminda Lor: Tuptim
Helen Yu: Lady Thiang
Mel Duane Gionson: The Kralahome
Andrew Guyvijitr: Prince Chulalongkorn
With: Ronobir Lahiri, Hsin-Ping Chang, Youn Kim, LaMae Caparas, Johanna Caro, Pip Abrigo, Derrick Alipio, Jessica Bautista, John Bantay, Susan Brownfield, Mario Camacho, Martin Cespedes, David Cho, Simeon Den, Candice Song Donehoo, Karin Farrell, Yoko Fumoto, William Gilinsky, Linda Igarashi, Catherine Jhung, Roxann Parker, Tito Reyes, Joowon Roh, Andrew Sakaguchi, Derek Sakakura, Nandita Shenoy, Khamla Somphanh, Kelly Teo, Ashley Doniego, Christine Kim, Zang Heng Li, Michael Mags, Jason Nop, Jade Rivera, Rachel Lee Rowley, Raymond Wong, Michael Yang.
A production of Dodger Endemol Theatricals, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in association with the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Based on the novel by Margaret Landon. Directed by Christopher Renshaw. Choreography: Jerome Robbins. Musical staging: Lar Lubovitch. Sets: Brian Thomson. Costumes: Roger Kirk. Lighting: Nigel Levings. Sound: Tony Meola and Lewis Mead. Orchestrations: Robert Russell Bennett; additional orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Music direction: Kevin Farrell. Music supervision: Eric Stern. Production stage manager: John Gray.