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A fresh wind blows through Marriott's production of 'The King and I'


A fresh and welcome wind is blowing up the Malay Peninsula — well, across the Marriott Lincolnshire golf course, at least — with the famed suburban theater's very fine new production of "The King and I," the debut at that locale of the director Nick Bowling, hitherto known for his intimate, immersive productions at Chicago's TimeLine Theatre.
Bowling's new production does not entirely throw away the familiar Marriott playbook. For one thing, the show stars one of this theater's most loyal stars, Heidi Kettenring, an actress who, in the deceptively tricky role of Anna, plays up the way Oscar Hammerstein was satirizing the English schoolteacher type while simultaneously appealing to 1940s notions of postcolonial Western superiority.

To watch "The King and I" with some regularity, as I do, is to marvel each and every time at how skillfully the show makes a violent polygamist sympathetic and how shameless it is in its appeal to Anglo-American self-regard. "I cannot stay in this country where a promise has no meaning," the irony-free Anna says to the King of Siam, as if 19th-century Britain had some unimpeachable record in geopolitical promise-keeping. Er, not exactly.

But Kettenring, a pleasure to regard in this, her vocal prime, also juices up her potentially smug gal with a bit of the Bridget Jones, a bit of the J.K. Rowling, as her King, the very sensual and unusually youthful Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte flexes his buff torso in her repressed but potentially willing direction.

On Wednesday night, Kettenring's sustained spark set the tone for a very light and lively production that achieves a level of intimacy I don't think I've seen at the Marriott before. That's because Bowling treats this tricky theater in the round not much differently from the room he usually works in, a black-box in a North Side church.

He's persuaded the usual Marriott designers, especially Thomas M. Ryan, to up their usual game and find far more depth and scope to the space — the set elements at the rear of the house are lit by Jesse Klug to extend the space backward in a much more intense way than is typical here. The costumes, by Nancy Missimi, are laudably counterintuitive, yet with the requisite eye on tradition. In short, Bowling strikes down some of the Marriott rules without deconstructing a masterpiece.

Sure, Marriott subscribers may find themselves staring at a few more backs for longer than usual in a theater where most directors keep their actors in constant motion, lest one seating or another feels left out. But the trade-off is a more sculpted look to the show and, for we regulars, a real and welcome feeling of new physical patterns being exploited.

Bowling has some very interesting ideas. Guilarte might lack some of the requisite vocal gravitas as the King, but he not only is an engaging presence but a very in-the-moment sort of guy who appears to be enjoying life and making things up as he goes along, not unlike the ambitious but insecure ruler of Rodgers and Hammerstein's conception. And to his credit, Guilarte keeps plenty up his sleeve for the last scene, which choked me up, as it usually does.

In most productions of this piece, Prince Chulalongkorn, here played by the terrific juvenile Matthew Uzarraga, is generally a mini-adult. Bowling lets him be a little kid, which makes the end of the show yet more poignant, and terrifying for all concerned. And "Something Wonderful," the pleading but wise ballad sung here by Kristen Choi (as Lady Thiang) is exceptionally rich and moving.

Within that same pallet, Tommy Rapley's naturalistic and unobtrusive choreography also is far from the usual legit moves seen at this theater — Rapley seems to have taken it as his text that no one in the palace really knows how to dance, especially since they are all so stymied by the collision of two different cultures. Thus most of the moves are halting and nervous; the carefully crafted awkwardness really humanizes those who live in the palace and adds to the show's crucial note of a closed world on the cusp of change.

The ensemble is almost entirely composed of actors of color and, when you add fine actors like Joseph Anthony Foronda, who here plays the Kralahome, the result is a cast well stocked with talent. No musical parades kids around the stage (and I include "The Sound of Music" in that) with quite the efficacy and style of "The King and I," and this crew of charmers are a constant delight. This is a strikingly connected show, with real chemistry between both the lead characters and those whose lives are inexorably altered by what transpires between them. It is always a comfort when, at "The King and I," the question of "Shall We Dance?" is answered by a pair who, we feel in that moment, want nothing more in the whole wide world, the one they only think they understand.