A Celebration of Love
Throughout this bewitching musical classic, based upon Margaret Landon’s historically-based 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, all forms of love courses throughout each scene and almost every song. Accompanied by her young son, Louis, Anna Leonowens, the young English schoolteacher, bravely travels to the Orient to accept a governess position for the Siamese King’s children. Despite being a recent widow, Anna’s still deeply in love with her departed husband. Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, understands that her husband isn’t perfect; he’s polygamous and has many weaknesses, but she’s also very much in love with him, as well. Tuptim, the young Burmese slave girl, who becomes a gift to the King of Siam, is sadly ripped away from her own lover, the young scholar, Lun Tha. And in spite of their tempestuous relationship, a love that can only barely be recognized but never acted upon builds between Anna and the King.
An abundance of love flows across the Marriott stage, thanks to Nick Bowling’s wise and sensitive direction. Like most every show presented at this venue, Mr. Bowling’s “King and I” feels intimate and personal. Every moment of growing affection, often spiced with unexpected humor and brimming with a vibrant humanity, radiates with emotion. This mismatched couple’s journey from courteous respect to genuine caring ultimately develops into a restrained Victorian love, all thanks to the caring and talented direction of Nick Bowling.
Rodgers & Hammerstein understood that much of their shows’ popularity evolved from the love stories told through their words and music. In this musical, in order to give audiences what they expected, the composer and playwright included a forbidden love affair between two of his minor characters, Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha. This doomed relationship provided the sought-after romantic element theatergoers demanded. And, despite the rocky relationship between the title characters, the manner in which Mr. Bowling has staged and guided his two talented actors throughout each scene allows the audience to see their love developing, as well, right up to the show’s heavyhearted finale.
Mr. Bowling also has the advantage of a handsome and talented cast. Chicago’s favorite actress, Heidi Kettenring, whose stylish Anna embraces every subtle nuance and whose lovely, expressive voice caresses each song, masterfully carries off a role created by the legendary Gertrude Lawrence. Navigating the stage with grace and sophistication and peppered with spunk, Ms. Kettenring makes this iconic hoop-skirted lady her very own. She’s matched scene-for-scene by a bold, handsomely sexy King, played with virility and command by New York actor Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte. Backed by an impressive resume, Mr. Guilarte’s grasp of this autocrat, whose enthusiasm for scientific scholarship and wisdom frequently collides with his ego, is nothing short of genius. Displaying an evolving personality that’s continually at odds with itself, while coping with and being drawn to this curious, intelligent woman, makes this King more engrossing than in most productions. Mr. Guilarte’s King, who’s the heart of this show, is imposing, influential and completely human.
The supporting cast brings gorgeous voices, graceful movement and commanding performances to the ensemble. Kristen Choi creates a beautiful, charitable Lady Thiang. Her operatic voice makes her rendition of the touching, “Something Wonderful,” indeed, something wonderful. Megan Masako Haley and Devin Ilaw are exquisite in the roles of Tuptim and Lun Tha. All three actors create such well-rounded characters and sing Richard Rodgers’ music as if they were born to play these roles. The young lovers’ peerless performances of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and the magnificent, “I Have Dreamed” are romantic with a touch of melancholy. Joseph Anthony Foronda, a masterclass in fine acting with any role he interprets, makes the Kralahome a finely executed stern presence in Anna’s life. Rod Thomas splits his stage time as a finely-spoken, Scottish Captain Orton and the charming British dignitary, Sir Edward Ramsey. Mr. Thomas is subtle in his challenges to the King for the governess’ affections, upon his arrival in Siam.
The children are, naturally, all angelic and affecting, particularly young Michael Semanic, as Anna’s son Louis, and, as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, the terrific little Matthew Uzarraga (last seen as the showstopping Gavroche in Drury Lane’s “Les Miserables”). Both young actors effortlessly leave their stamp upon their scenes, with Mr. Uzarraga creating a perfect, humorously pint-sized version of his father, the King. In the play’s final, tear-filled moments, as the Prince inherits his new title, we hear his governess’ voice in his first proclamations that herald the beginnings of a new era in Siam.
Tommy Rapley, much of whose choreographic talent has been enjoyed over the years at the House Theatre, creates a montage of simple, but elegant movement for numbers like “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance” and, of course, the musical’s balletic showpiece, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Much credit goes to the show’s talented dancers, especially W. Blaine Brown as Uncle Thomas, Jasmine Ejan as Topsy, Janelle Villas as Little Eva, Sayiga Eugene Peabody as Simon Legree, and especially Yu Suzuki as Eliza and Monique Haley as George.
The requisite visual beauty, opulence and splendor of King Mongkut’s Siamese palace falls to Thomas M. Ryan and Nancy Missimi. Mr. Ryan has accomplished this through a collection of detailed, golden gables that frame the stage and which seemingly recede into infinity through his Asian-inspired lattice-work panels lining the rear aisles. The production’s perfectly lit by Jesse Klug. Ms. Missimi has once again outdone herself with a vast wardrobe of costumes, ranging from Anna’s heavy, multilayered hoop-skirted creations, including a gorgeous ice-blue ball gown for “Shall We Dance,” to the more delicate silks and satin brocades for her large cast of Siamese citizens.
Everything about this sublime production deserves a standing ovation. Ryan T. Nelson’s detailed musical direction, as evidenced both by the voices of his 29-member cast and in Michael Duff’s 12-piece orchestra, does this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic proud. Whether it’s a return visit to this lovely, timeless tale of culture shock and romance or a first-time encounter with Anna and her King, the Marriott’s melodic, visually stunning, handsomely executed production of an American classic is both affectionate and visceral. A sweeping bow of gratitude to one of Chicago’s most consistently excellent theatre companies for this celebration of love.