“The King and I,” now at Marriott Theatre, is an extraordinary production that flows seamlessly from the opening number, “I Whistle a Happy Tune” sung by Anna Leonowens (Heidi Kettenring) and her son, Louis (Michael Semanic), to that song’s reprise in the finale’s death scene.
The number really encapsulates an underlying theme of, as the song says, “Make believe you’re brave.”
In the 1860s, Anna, a British teacher, bravely leaves colonial Singapore for Siam when the King (historically known as Mongkut) wants someone to teach his children Western ways.
The King, a Buddhist scholar who contemplates the differences between science and religion, bravely, but with great difficulty, ventures away from his court and country’s traditions to save it from being colonized.
Princess Tuptim (Megan Masako Haley), a gift to the King from Burma, bravely presents the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” tale as “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,”a masterfully done ballet. Her message to the King is that slavery is wrong.
On the surface, the King agrees and thinks he should send President Abraham Lincoln some elephants to help win the United States’ civil war. But he still considers his wives and concubines as possessions.
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, the musical was derived from the real-life challenges told in governess Anna Leonowens’ memoirs. Author Margaret Landon turned Leonowen’s story into the 1944 novel, “Anna and the King of Siam.”
However, since the show premiered on Broadway in 1951, it is Rodgers’ music and Hammerstein’s lyrics that have captured audiences with “Hello, Young Lovers,” “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I have Dreamed,” and “Shall we Dance.”
There isn’t a weak voice or character in this cast. Even the Royal Children are delightful and adorable. Mathew Uzarraga as Prince Chulalongkorn does a fine job striking the poses expected of the heir apparent.
But it is the exceptional voices of Ketenring, Haley, Devin Ilaw (Tuptim’s lover Lun Tha) and Kristen Choi (Lady Thiang), turn a normally pleasing show into an extraordinary production. Indeed, Choi’s operatic interpretation of “Something Wonderful” is a stand-out number.
As the King of Siam, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte perfectly presents the cultural conflicts and challenges of commanding respect while changing a country’s ethics and attitudes.
Director Nick Bowling subtly pulls out the humor inherent in East meets West situations and dress, such as Anna’s hoop skirts as opposed to Siam’s form-fitting clothing.
Imagine trying to bow wearing a hoop skirt so the underwear doesn’t show or children’s wonderment about the body shape under a broad-skirt.
Nancy Missimi’s gorgeous costumes made the scenes feel as if they really were taking place in a palace in Siam.
Tommy Rapley’s choreography of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet is brilliant and reminiscent of a Mary Zimmerman-style production.
In all, Marriott Theatre’s “The King and I” is a gem of a holiday present.
Details: “The King And I” is at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL 60069, now through Jan. 4, 2015. For more information call 847-634-0200 and visit Marriott Theatre