For my very first time seeing the Rodgers & Hammerstein hit The King and I, nothing could have beaten the Marriott Theatre. Any musical that gets the Marriott treatment comes out sparkling. Even the well-worn classics. This is, no doubt, because of their imaginative sets and world-class performers. It’s an open secret that one of the finest theaters in the region for off-Broadway musicals isn’t in downtown Chicago, but in the northern suburb of Lincolnshire.
Marriott is well-known for its theater-in-the-round, an unusual arrangement where the audience is seated on all sides of a central stage. Yes, the actors sometimes have their backs to you, but the overall effect is a more natural and three-dimensional atmosphere, especially when the action spills over into the aisles. It’s always a treat to see how such a challenging setup is used. For the King and I, set designer Thomas Ryan did a fantastic job. The beautifully ornate set spreads out behind the audience, evoking a spacious oriental palace while giving you the intimacy of being a fly-on-the-wall.
The cast is superb. Especially striking is New York actor Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte’s bombastic King of Siam, shaved head and all. As he sang “A Puzzlement,” it was fascinating to see his imperiously impatient presence become the contrived bravado of an insecure man. Under all the brashness and unabashed sexism, of which there is plenty, Guilarte’s King is at turns hilarious, self-aware and intelligent. While you don’t necessarily always like him, you feel for him in that he has a challenging position, of saving face as an absolute ruler while trying to keep his country from becoming a British protectorate.
Sparks really fly when the King is challenged by Heidi Kettenring’s Anna Leonowens, the widowed British schoolteacher who comes at his invitation to give a ‘scientific’ western education to his favored children and wives. Kettenring’s Anna is fiery and indignant, the flint to the King’s steel. Yet she is wise, and downright charming with her students for whom she shows an earnest affection, best seen in “Getting to Know You.” Kettenring has a wonderfully expressive singing voice, one that soars in “Hello, Young Lovers,” when she recalls her love for her late husband. It’s no surprise that she’s been a leading role in past Marriott productions such as Cats and Little Women.
Oddly, for all the sparks that fly, there’s little that resembles romantic feelings between the King and Anna. Even during the lively “Shall We Dance” moment around the stage, Anna’s hoop skirt bouncing, there’s still an inescapable distance between them. While they soften towards each other and become friends, neither of them fully crosses into the other’s inner world even when they’re in each other’s arms dancing. Perhaps this was director Nick Bowling’s intent. The great tragedy is that their (certainly understated) love is as outright impossible as the doomed (but convincingly passionate) Burmese lovers Tuptim and Lun Tha.
Of the other marvelous performances, I enjoyed Megan Masako Haley’s (Tuptim) moving duet with Devin Ilaw (Lun Tha) in “We Kiss In A Shadow.” And I won’t soon forget the soulful voice of Kristen Choi (Lady Thiang) in her solemn love song about her polygamist husband, the King, in “Something Wonderful.” There was nothing more delightful than the child actors in the “March of the Siamese Children,” especially the amusingly impetuous Matthew Uzarraga who played the heir-apparent Prince Chulalongkorn.
My favorite scene of all was when Tuptim puts on a production of “Small House of Uncle Thomas” for the visiting British envoys. This narrated ballet, really a play within a play, retells the American anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a singularly Siamese style. Here the east makes sense of the west, and it is visually stunning. Ballerina Yu Suzuki, who plays the runaway slave Eliza, was outstanding.
This play still shines like new, even more than 63 years after its debut. Marriott’s solid performance made sure of that. True, the pidgin English seems anachronistic, but I think the play gives a lot of depth to its characters and has a refreshingly modern message of tolerance and empathy. The Marriot Theatre’s rendition of The King and I is well recommended.
The Marriott Theatre
10 Marriott Dr, Lincolnshire, IL 60069
The King and I performances run until January 4th, 2015, and are on Wednesdays through Sundays
tickets range from $40 to $48