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The King and I

No American theater artist more potently blended passionate humanism with mainstream storytelling skills than librettist Oscar Hammerstein II. While his musicals sometimes suffer from unconscious liberal condescension in their portrayal of cultural friction--whether between white and black Americans in the 1927 Show Boat or between Europeans and Asians in this 1951 collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers--Hammerstein had a principled, romanticized, but still resonant vision of social barriers being overcome by our common humanity. This touring version of British director Christopher Renshaw's beautifully designed 1996 Broadway revival isn't perfect. The role of Anna Leonowens (the British widow King Mongkut imported to 1860s Siam to tutor his children) was tailor-made for the charismatic but vocally limited Gertrude Lawrence, and it doesn't really suit pop singer Maureen McGovern, with her lush voice and connect-the-dots acting (she's good in her feisty and funny scenes but falls short at the tragic climax). And Luzviminda Lor as the monarch's unhappy concubine and Timothy Ford Murphy as her ill-fated young lover come off as strident, overamplified stick figures. But the show has much to recommend it. Victor Talmadge is excellent as the tyrant ennobled and destroyed by his growing respect and affection for Anna, which transform his arrogant attitudes about women and power: Talmadge combines the feline irony of Rex Harrison, star of the 1946 nonmusical film version of Margaret Landon's fact-based novel, with the powerful physicality of Yul Brynner, the character's first musical incarnation. Operatic mezzo Taewon Kim as the king's principal wife is thrilling in her soaring solo "Something Wonderful." Jerome Robbins's classic choreography (including the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" antislavery ballet) is augmented by fine new dances by Lar Lubovitch. Brian Thomson's vividly colored sets, with their tiered towers and intricately detailed murals, and Roger Kirk's gorgeous costumes, from Anna's billowing, bustled hoopskirts to the king's glittering tunics, evoke opulence without swamping the story in spectacle, helping preserve the leisurely narrative's cumulative power. And the masterful score, with its shrewd mix of Eastern and Western idioms and its melodic grace and rhythmic variety, will exhilarate listeners hungry for an alternative to the monotonous bombast of today's pop operas. Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, 312-902-1500. Through June 28: Thursday, 7:30 PM; Friday, 8 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 PM. Then June 30 through July 5: Tuesday, 7:30 PM; Wednesday, 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursday, 7:30 PM; Saturday, 2 and 8 PM; Sunday, 2 and 7:30 PM. $27-$67.50. --Albert Williams

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Craig Schwartz.

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