STAGE TO SCREEN: King Takes Liberties

STAGE TO SCREEN: King Takes Liberties Tuptim pining away for Chulalongkorn instead of Lun Tha? The Kralahome conspiring against the King of Siam? Cuddly animal sidekicks??? What is this, a Disney "The King & I"?

Tuptim pining away for Chulalongkorn instead of Lun Tha? The Kralahome conspiring against the King of Siam? Cuddly animal sidekicks??? What is this, a Disney "The King & I"?

Actually, it's a Warner Bros. "The King & I." As the Mouse continues to exert a four-fingered grip on Broadway, it fights an ever-increasing battery of competitors in the animated musical market. This year marks a subtle but telling sea change in recent Academy Awards history: Disney, which has averaged 1.2 Best Original Song nominations per year over the last decade, came up empty with "Mulan," but both Warner Bros. ("The Quest for Camelot") and Dreamworks SKG ("The Prince of Egypt") were represented.

Warner Bros. is looking to keep this trend alive by bringing the 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein classic to the screen. Famed producer Arthur Rankin, best known for such Christmas classics as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman," has been working on this adaptation for the last five years. "Adaptation" is the key word here: The final product, which debuts Mar. 19, may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone expecting a faithful retelling.

"This is the story put through the Saturday-morning cartoon mixer," says R&H Org spokesman Bert Fink of this version, the first theatrical release of a Rodgers and Hammerstein work since that one with the nuns and the Nazis. ("The King & I" was originally filmed in 1956.) R&H traditionally keeps pretty tight reins on stage productions, but reaching Hollywood audiences often means playing by Hollywood's rules. "We had to be willing to sit back and take a bit of a risk," says Fink, "which we're not used to." But he stresses that the songs and general emotions are untouched, even if it does have a monkey named Moonshee, a villainous Kralahome with a comic relief henchman, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The voices aren't quite as starry as most of the Disney efforts, but both leads are familiar to theatregoers: Martin Vidnovic (Baby, the 1977 King & I revival) is both the speaking and singing voice of the King, while Jekyll & Hyde's Christiane Noll sings the role of Anna. Miranda Richardson provides the speaking voice. The score focuses almost exclusively on the King and Anna, with the reconfigured romantic leads getting relatively short shrift. You can hear most of their music during the de rigueur pop ballad over the end credits, though; it's Barbra Streisand's The King & I medley from "The Broadway Album."

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Short Takes: Kevin Spacey has been juggling The Iceman Cometh rehearsals with a shooting schedule for a film based on the Roger Rueff play, Hospitality Suite, according to Variety. Danny DeVito costars in the probably-to-be-renamed movie, which follows three industrial lubricant salesmen at a convention in Wichita. Spacey has apparently been keen to do the play, which has been seen in Chicago and Los Angeles, for some time now. ... Touchstone has begun screening "The Cradle Will Rock," Tim Robbins' starry retelling of the 1937 Marc Blitzstein "labor opera" and the controversy it engendered. (Orson Welles directed it under the auspices of the government-funded Federal Theatre Project; after the subject matter induced police to lock the company out of the theatre on opening night, everybody marched to another venue 20 blocks away and the cast performed the play from the seats.) Reports from one of the first screenings say Robbins' recreation of the play -- which was filmed last summer at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre -- takes up the final third of the movie. The cast includes John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray, John Turturro and, as Blitzstein, Hank Azaria. "The Cradle Will Rock" is tentatively scheduled for release this fall. ... Opening the same day as "The King & I": "Go," the latest effort by "Swingers" director Doug Liman. This time he's enlisted a batch of theatre notables, among them Taye Diggs (Rent, Carousel), Timothy Olyphant (The Santaland Diaries) and Jane Krakowski (Grand Hotel, Company).

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief for Show Music and a theatre critic for Back Stage.