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'The King and I' at the Marriott Theatre

The Marriott Theatre revival of “The King and I” is one of those joyous occasions where brilliant casting, superb singing, and bull’s-eye directing unite to refresh a musical masterpiece.

The show is set in Siam during the mid 1800’s and brings an English woman named Anna Leonowens into contact with the King of Siam (now Thailand), who brings her to his country as a tutor to his many children, polygamy being an ostentatious fact of life in the Asian country. The musical was based on “Anna and the King of Siam,” Margaret Landon’s semi-accurate account of Anna’s experiences in Siam, a book many Thais feel is a slander against the king. 

Anna is a strong-willed mid Victorian Englishwoman who bridles against the king’s blatantly sexist (in her Western eyes) attitudes toward women. Their conflicts supply most of the musical’s humor and some of its drama as the initial adversaries gradually grow to respect each other. The Rodgers and Hammerstein classic boasts one if the glorious scores in modern musical theater but the book, which wasn’t a difficulty when the show opened in 1951, has become increasingly problematic. The book seems to condescend to the king who too often comes across as a vain, cartoonish figure to be chuckled at by a modern sophisticated audience.

The Marriott has brought in Nick Bowling to direct “The King and I.” Bowling is associate director of the TimeLine Theatre, where they know a thing or two about presenting characterizations with insight and intelligence. Bowling subtly endows the king with a humanity and droll sense of humor that eliminates any patronizing taints from the book. At the same time, the king is in the grip of culture clashes that he must face alone as supreme ruler.

Throughout, we get a credible portrait of a ruler struggling against the pressures of a volatile and threatening world, a ruler trying to make his country “scientific” in the Western sense while protecting it from countries with designs on his kingdom. Yet in the famous “March of the Siamese Children” number, when the children are introduced to Anna, the king reveals a playful quality that shows us a man with warm fatherly feelings for his dozens of offspring.

The “Puzzlement” solo, usually played as much for laughs as insight into the king’s dilemmas, becomes a stirring probe into the mindset of an all-powerful monarch who privately fears he may be getting in over his head in his fast-changing world. Even his pronunciation of the song’s title conveys the king’s confusion instead of being played as a humorous bit of pigeon English. The role will always carry the stamp of Yul Brynner, the Broadway creator of the character, but Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte is a more complete king, and I’ve seen Brynner.

The Marriott has assembled a superb cast that relies heavily on Asian performers, giving the production an authentic ethnic look. The staging is especially fortunate in its selection and use of Asian children, who are not just cute little tykes but active participants in the action. They take Bowling’s direction beautifully, especially a lad named Matthew Uzarraga as the king’s heir to the throne.

Characters who are window dressing in some productions supply gratifying heft to the narrative. Kristen Choi is magnificent as Lady Thiang, the king’s number one wife and a figure usually notable for a single song, “Something Wonderful.” Choi hits a home run with the song but her acting illuminates Lady Thiang’s nonmusical moments as a woman who realistically sees the king’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. It’s a passionate performance grounded in a reality that enriches the entire production. Just another instance of how Bowling’s directing enhances without needlessly revising.

And then there is Heidi Kettenring, whose magnificence as Anna will surprise nobody who has followed Chicagoland musical theater in recent years. Kettenring’s voice seems to improve in range and expressiveness from role to role but it’s her skill as an actress that raise the bar at the Marriott. There is a depth to her Anna, especially in her evolving relationship with the king, that makes “The King and I” a fine play when the singing and dancing stop.

“The King and I” is noted for its Oriental pageantry, most of which is sacrificed at the Marriott because of the theater’s in-the-round stage. But what the staging must omit in exotic visuals it gains in the intimacy. And the show is still plenty colorful, thanks to Nancy Missimi’s costumes.

Marriott has employed Tommy Rapley from the House Theatre to handle the choreography. Rapley does well with the show’s two major production numbers, “The March of the Siamese Children” and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet, in spite of the limitations of the in-the-round stage. He pays his homage to the Jerome Robbins original choreography, but puts his stamp on the production with his witty and charming choreography for the “Getting to Know You” number between Anna and her young royal students. Ryan T. Nelson is the guest conductor of the small but efficient Marriott orchestra.

This is a production of big voices, led by Kettenring, Choi, and Devin Ilaw and Megan Masako Haley as the tragic young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim. Guilarte displays a solid singing voice instead of talking his way through his songs like so many non-singing kings.

There are high quality supporting performances everywhere, notably by Chicagoland theater veteran Joseph Anthony Foronda as the Kralahome and Michael Semanic as Anna’s young son, Louis (I don’t recall ever seeing so many talented children in a single production).

The Richard Rodgers score remains a roll call of superb numbers—“I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers,”
“Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “Shall We Dance.” And I’ll take “March of the Siamese Children” over Ravel’s “Bolero” any day.

The show ends with one of the great tear jerking scenes in musical theater as the king quietly and bravely dies. It’s an exercise in emotionally manipulation that the viewer can see coming from its beginning, and as usual, I choked up.

Much credit goes to the Marriott artistic brain trust for going outside the box to bring in Nick Bowling and Tommy Rapley to burnish the show with their insights. “The King and I” will always be a terrific show, even with a comical king. But Marriott has achieved something special with its revival, and even viewers thoroughly familiar with the show will come away gratified by how much more this production has mined in bonus entertainment values.

The show gets a rating of 4 stars.