Review: “The King and I”

RECOMMENDED

Where: The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire. IL
When: through Jan. 4, 2015
Tickets: $40-$48
Phone: 847-634-0200

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you’ve somehow forgotten why Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 “The King and I” is a classic, the savvy new production at Marriott Theatre will provide a potent reminder. The masterful musical has everything you could want: a great story, characters you care about, wonderful songs that further the narrative, powerful political and cultural themes, romance, humor, satire, cute kids, and a whole lot more.

Making his Marriott directorial debut, Nick Bowling—who did a marvelous job with “Juno” at TimeLine Theatre Company—knows enough not to mess with success. The show is very traditional, almost surprisingly so, though he does tweak some of the details to give them a contemporary spin. And his staging uses Marriott’s in-the-square set up to good advantage, from the evocatively lit Thai-style filigree walls surrounding the audience and temple-type rooftops edging the playing area (sets by Thomas M. Ryan, lighting by Jesse Klug) to careful blocking that helps us forget when we’re looking at the actors’ backs. Nancy Missimi’s costumes are as colorful and sumptuous as any I’ve seen, and choreographer Tommy Rapley shows some of them off in routines—especially ‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet”– that take their cue from Jerome Robbins’ original choreography but are nonetheless his own.

Heidi Kettenring heads the cast as Anna Leonowens, the mid-19th century widow hired by the King of
Siam as governess to his children, and the role suits her perfectly. Her Anna is an eloquent feminist well before her time (or 1951), and her fiery fight for what she believes in stands out, even as it’s at odds with her Victorian prudery, just as her insistence on the sanctity of promises indirectly underscores the hypocrisy of her own British people and their misguided belief in the superiority of their ways. Kettenring also brings her own phrasing and emphasis to her varied numbers–”I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You”–so they sound fresh without being revisionist.

I could wish for a little more romantic tension between Kettenring and Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte’s King of Siam, but some sparks fly in the big “Shall We Dance” polka, and it’s probably unreasonable to expect anyone to exude the intensity of Yul Brynner, bald pate or no. What Guilarte does bring to the role is a convincing vulnerability, so that the complicated conflict between his desire to modernize his country to secure its place in the world and his need to exert and protect his prerogatives as ruler—beautifully expressed in “A Puzzlement”– comes across as very real.

Of the supporting characters swirling around the king, Kristen Choi is most moving as wise first wife Lady Thiang and nearly brings the house down with her operatic solo “Something Wonderful.” Tiny Matthew Uzarraga holds his back ramrod straight and his chin very high as her son, Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne surrounded by predictably adorable little siblings in “The March of the Siamese Children.” Michael Semanic is thoroughly appealing as Anna’s son, Louis, while Joseph Anthony Foronda is appropriately intimidating as the king’s stern Kralahome. As doomed Burmese lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha, Megan Masako Haley and Devin Haw have the most haunting love songs–”We Kiss In a Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed”–and for the most part do them justice.

I do have a few quibbles with a couple of Bowling and Rapley’s decisions, however. A minor issue is the disappearance of poor Eliza’s baby for most of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet.” She’s supposed to be fleeing with the child—and that flight lasts for a very long time—so, while having her carry a bundle throughout a difficult dance may be logistically challenging, just eliminating the baby seems like a mistake, both practically and emotionally.

The casting of Prince Chulalongkorn is a bigger problem. “The King and I” takes place over many years, and because Uzarraga—as good an actor and singer as he is–is tiny, we lose the sense of the passage of time. This also affects how we view the final scene, which here comes across as a little rushed. If the boy were a bit older and closer to full height, the discrepancy wouldn’t be so obvious. The other solution would be to double cast the part, but that can be less than satisfying.

Musically, I found myself missing full orchestrations, but that’s pretty much a given at Marriott. Ryan T. Nelson’s music direction is commendable, except for his—and the cast’s—impulse to go for the big crescendo finish on every ballad and anthem. Not necessary. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creations don’t need to be punched up; they stand on their own—for all time, I suspect.