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Broadway's Bread & Butter: Musicals

By Frank ScheckSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 1996


The King and I

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At the Neil Simon Theatre

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

At the St. James Theatre

State Fair

At the Music Box Theatre

You've heard all the hoopla about such "revolutionary" musical creations as "Rent" and "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." But the real bread and butter of Broadway is classic musicals - revived, revised, gussied up, and enlivened with star power.

This spring season is no exception, with two works by Rodgers and Hammerstein and one by Stephen Sondheim returning to the boards.

To dispense with the obvious question first, no, Lou Diamond Phillips is not Yul Brynner, but he acquits himself nicely in the new Broadway revival of "The King and I," one of R&H's beloved classics. He brings a strong sense of presence to the role, acts in suitably intense kingly fashion, and, what's more, he's got the torso for it.

This $5.5-million production, which began life in Australia, proves once again that they do everything big Down Under. It's a large-scale, strikingly gorgeous show, so lavish in production values that it wouldn't look out of place at the Metropolitan (either the opera house or museum). Brian Thomson's sets, Roger Kirk's costumes, and Nigel Levings's lighting coalesce to re- create 1860s Bangkok in all its glittery splendor.

The atmosphere begins even before the show does, with spectacular stage curtains framed by a frieze depicting giant elephants, costumed monks offering prayers in the side boxes, and incense wafting over the crowd.

The musical has been staged with a precision and rigor that drains some of the fun out of it, however, (the director has extensive opera experience, and it shows). Although everyone remembers the show's exoticism, and the beauty of one of R&H's best scores (there are at least seven certified standards), what's often forgotten is how funny Hammerstein's book is.

The tentative, unconsummated romance between Anna and the King is marvelous in its subtle humor. Here, both the comedy and the necessary tension receive short shrift.

This is partly due to co-star Donna Murphy. Although she is a generally fine Anna, she seems even more buttoned up than the character requires. Another problem: With Lou Diamond Phillips's youthful appearance, the show seems more like "The Prince and I."

Still, there are numerous pleasures, and the "March of the Siamese Children" is as much of a crowd-pleaser as ever, with the most adorable moppets seen on a Broadway stage since "Annie." It's nice to have "The King and I" back on Broadway, in a convincing demonstration that the show does indeed have life after Yul.

If there were any doubts about whether Nathan Lane is now officially a star, they were erased with the tumultuous reception he received as he stepped onstage at the beginning of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

The comic actor could almost be the long lost son of Zero Mostel, who originated the part in the 1962 Broadway production. Lane has always resembled Mostel in his outsized comic style and mannerisms, and his performance here, in which there is no small amount of borrowing, serves as an homage to his predecessor.