Benjamin Cole and Nicole Horton When you visit the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre, you know you won't get much in the way of spectacle - the intimate stage space is charming, but limited - so, instead, you look for inventiveness, especially when the production in question generally thrives on spectacle.

Last season, CAST's Beauty & the Beast made up for a lack of large-scale production design through witty staging and even wittier performances, and The Sound of Music - a show that has become its own kind of spectacle - felt nearly revelatory, as if every aspect of this warhorse musical was re-imagined for its space and ensemble.

Subsequently, I was overjoyed to be returning to the theatre for its 2006 season opener, The King & I, even though it's a show that I - and probably many of you - feel I've already seen a few times too many. If any organization could put original life into this theatrical staple (even without the requisite Rodgers & Hammerstein grandiosity), it would be the Showboat. And the production itself is perfectly acceptable.

What it isn't, though, is inventive. CAST's King & I, helmed by the theatre's artistic director, Jay Berkow, is pleasant, and it showcases some lovely voices. Yet its moments of true inspiration are relegated to the cosmetics - Erica Eng's costumes (particularly the spooky-funny masks worn in the show's "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet) have an original vibrancy that's mostly missing from this King & I. The show feels reverent and dutiful, and might be just what King & I fans want from it. (Clearly, the devoted are imposing on the production happy memories of their own, as evidenced by Friday's audience, who began applauding the familiar "Shall We Dance" pas de deux practically before it started.) But the show, for all its professionalism, isn't alive - it feels like a copy of a copy.

There is one element of the production that's unexpected, but I'm not sure it's a good sort of unexpected. Benjamin Cole, portraying the King with curt authority, appears to be a focused performer, and his quick line deliveries yield some laughs, as when Anna (Nicole Horton) describes the King's barbaric reputation as a lie and he spits out, "Is false lie." But Cole's decision to play him as a scowling, barking despot only works if the King eventually changes; at some point, we need to see another side to the man who inspires Lady Thiang (Thea Engelson) to sing "Something Wonderful." (For her part, Engelson sings the role beautifully.) While a definite deviation from the norm, Cole's one-note Fu Manchu impersonation grows tiresome, and it's hard to fathom what about him eventually melts Anna's steely disposition.

Thankfully, Nicole Horton does a fine job of acting charmed. She's also in terrific voice - never better than when performing the comedic pique of "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?" - and carries off her dramatic moments impressively, and better yet, she's not alone; Maggie Mountsier and Paul Luoma are terrifically sweet as the ingénues, and Jeffrey Fauver, Colin Douglass, and Jami Fry (a fine dancer) are all welcome presences.

But for its considerable strengths, The King & I, in general, doesn't allow its supporting performers much individuality - they're all forced into playing varying degrees of repression - and oddly enough, the most joyful performances in CAST's The King & I came from the little kids on the stage; they seemed blithely unaware of the show's imposing notoriety, and just had a blast up there. I wish the adults involved with the show had done the same.


For tickets, call (563)242-6760.

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