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'The King and I'
By Judith Newmark

Portrait of Francis Jue, who plays the King of Siam in the summer production of the "King and I" at the Muny. (By Laurie Skrivan/P-D)

In "Shall We Dance?," a song at the climax of "The King and I," a British teacher gives a polka lesson to the ruler of Siam. Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyric: "On a bright cloud of music shall we fly?"

Maybe the line was his tribute to composer Richard Rodgers' score. This whole show is a bright cloud of music - and at the Muny, it soars.

About 9,000 theater-goers were on hand Monday night for the first production of the 2006 season at the outdoor theater in Forest Park. The warm, sunny weather inspired many people to come early to picnic and enjoy a free preshow that the Muny Kids performed on a little stage east of the theater.

Sound problems cut that program short, a disappointment. But once the audience took its seats, the sound was rich, alluring and just about nonstop - exactly the way to start the Muny season.

Conductor Kevin Farrell and the big orchestra approach the "old-fashioned" score with the passionate sincerity it deserves. Director Paul Blake gives the show an apt, traditional presentation, with gorgeous costumes from Robert Fletcher. More important, Blake put together a cast of voices commensurate to Richard Rodgers' score.

As teacher Anna Leonowens, Leslie Denniston proves equally appealing with romantic lyricism ("Hello, Young Lovers") and frustrated comedy ("Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?"). The lovers Tuptim (Andrea Burns) and Lun Tha (Paolo Montalban) soar in their doomed duet ("We Kiss in a Shadow"). Reveka Mavrovitis, as the polygamous king's first wife, delivers the show-stopping "Something Wonderful" twice. Three times would have been welcome.

Dance is, of course, also an important part of the show. A version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the style of an Asian ballet dominates the second act. Gemze de Lappe, who has adapted Jerome Robbins' choreography for the Muny, and her dancers make it an imaginative summation of the play's central theme: East meets West.

De Lappe also turns in an athletic elephant parade that you have to be a real Rodgers and Hammerstein nut to remember; it's a treat. "The March of the Siamese Children" is also a pleasure, but no surprise. Making a group of gorgeously costumed kids look good is not exactly the toughest challenge a choreographer may face.

A few years ago, some people took issue with "The King and I," because they saw it as a dated toast to colonialism. Today, the British Empire seems just as alien as the court of Siam.

The gifted actor Francis Jue portrays the king as a complex man. Torn between conflicting precepts in the middle of the 19th century, Jue's king is a juggler: physically lithe, intellectually adroit enough to provoke argument, shrewd enough to keep his own counsel, even when he could use a little help.

His big number, "A Puzzlement," is a solo. Of course it is; when a king admits to ambiguity, he hesitates to share that "weakness" with anyone. Jue sings the song thoughtfully as he builds to its powerful conclusion, a confession of self-doubt and a prayer for guidance. For a 21st-century audience, a leader who explores intellectual and moral confusion, even in private, seems both modern and admirable. 314-340-8243

'The King and I'

What: The Muny in Forest Park
When: At 8:15 p.m., through Sunday
How much: $8-$60; some free seats
Reservations: 314-534-1111

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