Hayley's Comet

Suppose you have a few million dollars to invest in The King and I. Naturally, you want to create a touring production of the highest quality, but you're also concerned about turning a profit. What you need is some sort of guarantee that will eliminate the possibility of financial failure and allow you to sell tickets costing as much as $65. So you bark out to your handlers (in a voice reminiscent of Thirties movie mogul Sam Goldwyn), "Get me Hayley Mills!"

Such a scenario, while largely hypothetical, might help to explain why the ever-alluring Mills is currently performing the role of Anna in Rodgers and Hammerstein's crowd-pleasing musical. The charming British actress beguiled baby-boom audiences with her Oscar-winning performance in the 1960 Disney film Pollyanna. More recently, the 51-year-old performer starred in three Eighties sequels to her 1961 blockbuster The Parent Trap. Banking on playgoers' fond memories of Mills's youthful performances, the producers of the musical have placed her name above the title of the show in their advertisements for the touring production.

The shrewd business move has worked like a charm. In fact, on opening night the capacity crowd at the Buell Theatre was so thrilled to see Mills that it rewarded her with a standing ovation. This despite the fact that Mills plainly can't sing: From the first notes of "I Whistle a Happy Tune," it was eminently clear that her vocal shortcomings weren't simply the result of an ailing throat. Throughout the evening, she crooned off-key and failed to properly support her singing with adequate breath control.

But musical failings aside, Mills is in otherwise fine form as the British schoolteacher who beguiles the King of Siam (Vee Talmadge in the role made famous by Yul Brynner). In fact, she's a delight, combining her character's common touch with the qualities of dignity and grace that ultimately win the affection of the King, who has hired her to teach English to his many children.

Talmadge's refreshing portrayal of the monarch bears little resemblance to Brynner's legendary interpretation: He sports a full head of hair with a long pony tail and never places his hands on his hips. His well-crafted portrayal reveals a man who, beneath the confident exterior of a stiff and uncompromising leader, gropes his way through many of life's difficulties.

The production features a solid supporting cast. As the two young lovers doomed to royal punishment and death, Luzviminda Lor and Timothy Ford Murphy deliver well-sung and well-acted portrayals. Moreover, several young children touring with the production are irresistible in "Royal Dance Before the King," and the beautifully staged ballet, "Small House of Uncle Thomas," is a stunning piece of choreography.

To be sure, Mills doesn't belong in the same category as Milli Vanilli, the Eighties group that disbanded when its star performers confessed that they hadn't sung a note of their chart-topping hits. Still, the generous response that audiences give her efforts makes you wonder what would have happened had the two disgraced pop stars been Sixties film icons instead of wannabe warblers. They might be starring in a Broadway show of their own by now.--Lillie

The King and I, through January 4 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.

 
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