Chicago—Despite our hearing vocal echoes of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr from the Academy Award-winning movie, director Nick Bowling’s “The King and I” at the Marriott Theatre is fresh and vital. From the opening whistles to the closing deep bow honoring the King of Siam, it is tight, moving, and, well, marvelous.
Widow Anna Leonowens (Heidi Kettenring) and her son, Louis (Michael Semanic), arrive in Siam in 1860. Anna is there to teach the children of the King of Siam (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte) and, according to his wishes, bring the country into the modern era.
Upset that the king has not lived up to his agreement to provide her a house of her own outside of the palace, Anna wants to leave her new appointment; however, she is won over by the king’s many charming children.
Anna soon becomes a favorite in the palace and befriends the king’s many wives. In particular, she sympathizes with the king’s newest wife, Tuptim (Megan Masako Haley), who is a present from the Burmese king to his Siamese counterpart.
Tuptim, however, is secretly in love with Lun Tha (Devin Ilaw), the young man who escorted her from Burma. Their love, if discovered, would be considered treason.
Despite Anna’s happiness in the palace, she persistently hints about the king’s broken promise to her—she needs her own space. After months without this problem being resolved, Anna again decides to leave.
But the head wife, Lady Thiang (Kristen Choi), convinces Anna to stay because she is desperately needed. The king fears his country risks becoming a British protectorate, and he doesn’t know what to do, Lady Thiang says.
Letting go of some of her pride, Anna agrees to help and even agrees to pretend that her ideas about how to mitigate the situation come from the king, so as not to hurt his pride. She hatches a plan to a hold a banquet—in British dress, with British food, dance, and manners to win over the British envoy. The evening will even include entertainment—a play written by Tuptim—based on the American novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
After the success of the ball and play, the king learns that Tuptim is missing. She has tried, and failed, to escape with her lover. Violently angry at the girl’s betrayal, the king is torn between his kingly rights to ultimate obedience from his subjects and his being judged by Anna, who is vehemently opposed to his punishing the girl.
His decision at this moment changes the course of his life and his country’s future.
Nowadays “The King and I” is usually considered afterglow from colonial glory days, an unsophisticated bit of fluff trivializing complex relationships between cultures. This production doesn’t feel that way.
It is not a production of “The King and I” where we stand in for “I,” for Anna, and agree with her sensibilities; instead, it is a look at two cultures intersecting and not understanding each other.
First, most of the cast are actors of color, with only the required roles in the right Caucasian pale. This directorial decision means that Anna navigates in a truly foreign world.
Next, the king and Anna are truly equals. Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte’s king has a quality of virile straightforwardness that wins us over. He carries himself with ease. He doesn’t work at winning us over. He doesn’t need to any more than his children need to.
The king’s simplicity, however, won’t work in dealing with the larger world that’s beginning to infringe on his, and Guilarte has the character reach as far across the cultural gap as he is able—until he snaps.
More importantly, Heidi Kettenring’s Anna is requisitely warm and genial, and we sympathize with her fear of an utterly foreign world. But she is also somewhat small-minded when she insists on getting her house and downright peckish in her “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?”
In her determination to have a foreign world play by her rules, we see not her moral superiority but her blind resistance. Anna is as unmindful of her ethnocentricity as the king is.
Thus both the king and Anna are bound by limited vision.
The real anchors in this production, and the ones the audience identifies with most, are the king’s adviser, the Kralahome (Joseph Anthony Foronda), and the head wife, Lady Thiang. These characters understand that the king and Anna love each other, even if Anna and the king don’t.
Foronda gives the nonsinging role dignity and wisdom. The Kralahome is not an unbending antagonist thwarting progress. He just sees the consequences of the king and teacher’s relationship clearly.
Kristen Choi as Lady Thiang lies at the heart of this show. Her “Something Wonderful” left “wow” on my lips, so heartfelt was its delivery. Choi labels herself as a mezzo-soprano because she has the upper range, but her lower notes resonate with a true contralto sound, which is very, very rare. All she did was stand and sing, and she mesmerized us.
The lovers Megan Masako Haley and Devin Ilaw are moving in their portrayals, with Ilaw’s tenor being particularly fine.
In addition to the splendid cast of adults, the children treat us to winning performances. In particular, very young Matthew Uzarraga as Prince Chulalongkorn is remarkable. He is a noble prince in a diminutive package.
Director Bowling captures just the right pace for the piece. It needs to be slow enough to establish a sense of rich, unhurried tradition, but if it lingered too long in any scene, the audience on one side of the theater-in-the-round would miss too much of the action. Truly pace-perfect. In fact, I thought the show had run merely 2 hours and was surprised to see the 2 hour, 40 minute run time.
Appropriate for musicals of this era, the setting (Thomas M. Ryan) and costumes (Nancy Missimi) are beautiful. Ornate gable trim in Thai style and hanging metal lamps create the palatial effect for the theater-in-the-round. Lattice-work behind the audience places us inside the palace. All of the costumes, but especially Anna’s ball gown, are lush.
In this “The King and I,” as Anna mentions before singing “Getting to Know You,” the teacher learns from the pupil as much as the other way around. Anna’s heart and mind continually enlarge as the show progresses.
Perhaps the audience does identify with Anna and play the role of “I” with her. For as her heart grows, so does that of the audience.
‘The King and I’
The Marriott Theatre
10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, Ill.
Tickets: 847-634-0200, or marriotttheatre.com
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Closes: Jan. 4, 2015