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Powers leads a delightful "King'

The King and I is more than a half-century old, but it doesn't seem dated.

That's not to say it isn't showing its age. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is very much a product of its time. But it's such a magnificent piece of theater that the years have only enriched it.

Wednesday night, The King and I received worthy treatment with a lively and stunningly crafted production at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

It was the first performance of a restaged national tour starring Stefanie Powers, a veteran of musical theater who's nonetheless often considered a television star. Sandy Duncan has been playing Anna for the past several months; Powers will take the role for the rest of this year.

On opening night, Powers proved to be an intensely appealing presence on stage, so much so that her singing, which is only adequate here, is a nonissue. She's full of grace, energy and charm and summons the subtlety, strength and depth that the role demands.

(In a speech after the performance, Powers announced that she would match any donations audience members made for tsunami victims. Ruth Eckerd Hall officials said the total amount raised opening night, including Powers' contribution, was more than $14,000.)

Noted Broadway director Baayork Lee (who made her stage debut at age 5 in the original production of The King and I) has created a rich and textured production, highlighted by almost unbelievably gorgeous sets (by Kenneth Foy) and costumes (by Roger Kirk). A meticulous performance by an 18-piece pit orchestra lays a perfect foundation for the performances.

And it's impossible not to be drawn to the ensemble actors, including a bunch of little kids who are just so darn cute that you want to run up on stage and hug them to death.

There are some shortcomings. Most noticeable on opening night was a tinny and unnatural quality to the voices, and even a few hints of feedback from the body microphones. One can hope that those problems will be corrected after the first performance in the theater.

A more substantial problem was the performance of Catherine MiEun Choi as Lady Thiang. Her dialogue was almost impossible to understand and her operatic singing voice was annoying. It was especially problematic because Lady Thiang's one big number, the relatively obscure Something Wonderful, is one of the show's most beautiful songs.

Ronobir Lahiri, as the King, has a powerful voice and a commanding stage persona. At times he seems to be imitating the classic performance of the role, by Yul Brynner. But it's hard to imagine how any actor could take on that role without summoning Brynner's spirit.

Best of all, there's the play and the songs. Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows of its era, it's full of songs that stick in your head and delivers a story that fills your heart.

REVIEW: The King and I, 8 tonight, 2 and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. Tickets are $37-$65. Call (727) 791-7400 or go to www.rutheckerdhall.com.

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