Marriott Theatre’s ‘King and I’ classic, contemporary and a real beauty

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The musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein are such an intrinsic part of our DNA that it is all too easy to take them for granted. So it is especially thrilling to be shaken to the core by a production of “The King and I” like the one that opened Wednesday at the Marriott Theatre — a production that remains absolutely faithful to the original, but somehow, magically, feels so fresh and so modern that it might have been created yesterday.

“The King and I” is a masterpiece on every count, with a glorious score as well as a particularly brilliant book that Hammerstein based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel, “Anna and the King of Siam,” which in turn was drawn from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, the Welsh-born woman hired to serve as teacher to the king’s children in the early 1860s. The king, a man deeply rooted in the entitlements of royalty and the tenets of Buddhism, was intent on modernizing his country, but the process of change proved to be profoundly painful, pitting his pride against his brilliant mind and revealing the tensions between East and West, men and women, isolation and worldliness.

‘THE KING AND I’ Highly Recommended When: Through Jan. 4 Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire Tickets: $40-$48 Info: (847) 634-0200; Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

Director Nick Bowling (making his Marriott debut immediately following his radically different coup with TimeLine Theatre’s “Danny Casolaro Died for You”) is the magician in charge here. And his work with the Thai Cultural and Fine Arts Institute of Chicago, as well as his collaboration with the ever-imaginative choreographer Tommy Rapley, the superb music director Ryan T. Nelson, the veteran Marriott design team and a cast of hugely gifted actors, all conjoin to make this a great dramatic feat that could easily hold its own on any grand opera stage. Yet the beauty of it at Marriott is its piercing intimacy.

The world of old Siam embraces you from the moment you enter the theater, with designer Thomas M. Ryan’s gracefully gabled gold roofs framing the stage, and later with Nancy Missimi’s lavish costumes. Arriving by boat is Anna (Heidi Kettenring, in splendid voice and in a role that fits her like a glove, a winningly stubborn and sensual Victorian widow, whose distinctive phrasing of familiar lyrics makes you hear them anew) and her young son, Louis (the charming Michael Semanic). They are met by the king’s powerful prime minister, the Kralahome (Joseph Anthony Forondo at his biting best). The King (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, a busy New York actor who possesses a winning combination of bristling intelligence, sexiness and wit) keeps her waiting. But when he arrives — his head as sleek as an egg, and his authority challenged by Anna’s sense of self — there is instant chemistry between the two, even though they are worlds apart in many ways. That chemistry only intensifies.

Watching the situation is the wisest of the King’s many wives, Lady Thiang (Kristen Choi), who is the mother of Chulalongkorn (Matthew Uzarraga), the young prince who will inherit the kingdom. Choi, an exquisite actress with an operatic voice, stops the show with “Something Wonderful,” her fervent homage to the man she clearly loves and admires. And from the moment he enters in “The March of the Siamese Children,” Uzzaraga, an uncanny young actor, nails his character with his priceless facial expressions and bearing, and is backed by seven other enchanting little performers  in what is surely one of the most beguiling sequences in musical theater.

And that scene is just one of many that stir the heart. There are the thwarted young Burmese lovers, Tuptim (lush-voiced Megan Masako Haley) and Lun Tha (Devin Ilaw). There is the rollicking “Shall We Dance” that triggers instant applause as the hoop-skirted Anna and the King circle the stage. There is Rapley’s wonderfully reimagined, splendidly performed take on the Jerome Robbins staging of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas Ballet” (ideally danced by Yu Suzuki), that ingenious tale of slavery that uses Asian techniques. There is the King’s marvelous meditation on leadership, “A Puzzlement” — a song that should be performed at the start of every international summit — and a death and succession scene that should be required at the end of all such meetings.

Something wonderful in every way.

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