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NUREYEV IS ALMOST ONLY FLAW IN REVIVAL OF `THE KING AND I’ . . .

SHARE NUREYEV IS ALMOST ONLY FLAW IN REVIVAL OF `THE KING AND I’ . . .

Casting Rudolf Nureyev in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" is, as the king would put it, "a puzzlement." It's not that he's not Yul Brynner. After all, other actors have successfully portrayed the king of Siam, most recently Stacy Keach.

But why would Nureyev, a world-class dancer, choose to make his theatrical debut as a character who is not supposed to know how to dance - especially since he hardly has the vocal ability to compensate?In the production that opened at the Mechanic Theatre recently, Nureyev's gravelly, off-key singing voice, his Russian accent and Hammerstein's deliberately awkward syntax combine to make many of the lyrics a puzzlement.

But fortunately, Nureyev is not called upon to do much singing. And his acting is adequate, although it is easier to accept him in the role if you keep in mind certain parallels between the man and the character. A king of the dance world plays the king of Siam; a star known for his obstinacy portrays a monarch known for his obstinacy and, most obviously, a musical based on the differences between East and West headlines a performer who made history by defecting to the West.

Interestingly, the original star of "The King and I" was not the king, but the "I" - that is, the character of Anna Leonowens, the English schoolteacher hired to educate the royal children. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the show for Gertrude Lawrence, and it was only after her death that Yul Brynner's name reigned supreme.

The current Anna is Liz Robertson, a British actress in the Julie Andrews mode, whose brave, independent frame of mind is clear from the moment she sets foot in Siam and coaches her young son to hide his fears by "whistling a happy tune." Robertson's singing, like her character's determination, never wavers. It is no surprise that in this land of subjugated women, everyone addresses her as "sir."

When Robertson's Anna imagines telling off the domineering king in "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" she registers palpable ire and frustration and, then, charmingly, tranforms these heated emotions to affection as the musical progresses.

Needless to say, it is amusing to watch one of the legends of ballet stumble over his partner's hoop skirts when Anna teaches the king to dance. And the production has other delightful moments as well. When it comes to adorability, it's hard to beat the "March of the Siamese Children," many of whom were culled from local auditions.

Two of the show's most melodic numbers - "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed" - are stirringly sung by Tuptim, the king's Burmese concubine (Suzan Postel) and her secret lover (Patrick A'Hearn). And the king's No. 1 wife is given a wise, heartfelt portrayal by Irma-Estel La Guerre, who has played the role on Broadway; her rendition of "Something Wonderful" is.

It is always a pleasure to get another look at Jerome Robbins' choreography, re-created here by Patricia Weber. Perhaps nowhere else in the show is the odd union of East and West better demonstrated than in the ballet, "The Small House of Uncle Thomas." It's a shame, though, that the props look so tawdry; wicked Simon's warriors carry clubs that look like wire whisks, and the trees in the forest scene appear to be decorated with colored Christmas lights.

Such incidentals aside, the overall production, directed by Arthur Storch, is rich in nostalgia; it'll take you agreeably back to a time when musicals and Indochina were more romantic. As a showcase for Nureyev, it is less satisfactory. He is a dancer who does not get to dance and a king whose singing is less than commanding. Maybe it is time to go back to Rodgers and Hammerstein's original intent and give top billing to Anna.