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STAGE REVIEW : Nureyev in 'King and I': It's a Puzzlement

December 07, 1989|DAN SULLIVAN | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

One expected to find Rudolf Nureyev's name printed above the title in the program for "The King and I" at Segerstrom Hall, the Orange County Performing Arts Center. One did not expect to find his name printed half-again as large as the title. NUREYEV in "The King and I."

The implication was that the immortal Nureyev had graciously consented to descend from the realm of "serious" dance in order to shed his magic on a workaday form, the American musical. Doubtless he would have to turn down his charisma by a few stops so as not to outshine the play. But the viewer would at least be given a glimpse of his superb athleticism, his incomparable ability to command the stage.

What the evening actually proves is that a star's charisma can be severely diminished, and even lost, when he transfers from one performance medium to another, even when the second medium appears to offer a lesser challenge.

From his first entrance at Segerstrom Hall, it's clear that Nureyev has had to develop a whole new set of reflexes in order to deal with a major singing and acting role, and that these reflexes are by no means in place. He is still putting it together as Rodgers and Hammerstein's King of Siam, and now and again seems to tire of the effort. All that talking!

Unfairly, but inevitably, we compare his King with Yul Brynner's. There are similarities. Brynner wasn't much of a singer, either, and also spoke in a picturesque accent. Nureyev holds his own here.

Nor can we fault Nureyev for failing to pay sufficient attention to his leading lady, Liz Robertson. Brynner never paid any attention to his co-stars, either, once he was rid of Gertrude Lawrence. He was always alone on the stage.

But he filled the stage. That, astonishingly, is what Nureyev fails to do. We might not expect him to project the kind of fierce concentration that goes with being the King of Siam, ever-besieged with "puzzlements"--but we do expect him to command the eye. He does not. If his billing is in headline type, his performance is in agate.

This really is a puzzlement. It's as if, robbed of dance patterns, this great dancer doesn't have a sense of his body. Either that, or Nureyev is avoiding a too-formal sense of gesture. In any case, the result is a King who stands around like a sulky teen-ager who didn't ask to be invited to this party, and who tends to wander off when somebody tries to engage him in conversation.

Not even his one dance number, "Shall We Dance?," goes well. Here's a chance for some dance characterization: the King showing Anna that he knows perfectly well how to keep a woman in hand, although he may not know how to polka. Nureyev simply scrambles through it.

This is not royal. Given that there is something adolescent about Rodgers and Hammerstein's King, he is also supposed to be to be a compelling personality. Played this absently, the King bears no resemblance to the man described by his No. 1 wife (Irma-Estel La Guerre) in the "Something Wonderful" number.

The show therefore comes across as something of a charade: a kind of Siamese version of "The Emperor's New Clothes," with everyone pretending to be dealing with a fearsome potentate who, in fact, is displaying very little personality at all. The audience is not, I think, fooled.

Robertson as Anna does her best to get some reaction out of Nureyev's King, but doesn't really succeed even in bringing her own character to life: the gentility is just too thick. Behind them, a big-but-mediocre ensemble goes through the motions on a big-but-not-all-that-splendid set. At its best--in the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet, say--this "King and I" is museum theater. At its worst, it's warehouse theater.

At 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Plays nightly at 8, with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes Sunday. Tickets $19-$40; (714) 556-ARTS.

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