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Marriott Theatre delivers beautifully traditional 'King and I'


"The King and I" has its detractors. The Broadway musical is banned in Thailand, which has strict laws about defaming the royal family. And in the years since the musical debuted in 1951, the underlying imperialism and the sometimes-comic portraits of Asian characters mispronouncing English words have had the potential to offend.

But when "The King and I" is sensitively and richly produced -- as it is currently at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire -- those qualms about the classic musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II fall by the wayside. There may be a number of historical inaccuracies involved in this depiction of the English-teaching governess, hired by the King of Siam (now Thailand) in the early 1860s, but the dramatic and emotional truths of the musical itself ring true.

Much credit goes to director Nick Bowling, making a strong and assured Marriott Theatre debut with "The King and I." A multiple Jeff Award-winner primarily associated with Chicago's acclaimed TimeLine Theatre, Bowling clearly shows a love of the material. And his culturally sensitive and frequently funny staging provide a sturdy framework for the exceptional cast to shine. He gets additional help -- and gloss -- from set designer Thomas M. Ryan's ornate golden turrets and lattices and costume designer Nancy Missimi's period outfits.

Heidi Kettenring brings a dogged determination as the headstrong governess Anna Leonowens, who amazes and angers the royal Siamese court with her brazenness to stand up to the King. Kettenring also reflects the softer side of Anna, especially in her romantic solo "Hello, Young Lovers."

Though Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte's performance as the King may not stray too far from Yul Brynner's original template, it never descends into caricature. Guilarte makes the King's struggles dramatically palpable, whether he's worrying about imperialistic foreign powers or personal questions of conscience.

Other standouts include the Lady Thiang of Kristen Choi, whose operatic mezzo voice is truly "Something Wonderful." Devin Ilaw and Megan Masako Haley also bring the vocal goods for the doomed romantic couple of Lun Tha and Tuptim.

The cute royal children of any "King and I" production are guaranteed to win oohs and aahs, and the ones at the Marriott, led by the commanding Matthew Uzarraga as Prince Chulalongkorn, certainly don't disappoint. The kids are endearingly and cleverly utilized by choreographer Tommy Rapley in the charming "Getting to Know You" and throughout "The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet" in Act II.

Rapley and Bowling also tease out the necessary sexual tension between Guilarte's King and Kettenring's Anna to fuel the iconic "Shall We Dance" polka, which rightfully won a hearty round of applause on opening night. So though "The King and I" may have its cultural critics, a strong production like the Marriott's certainly makes for a solid defense.