Broadway veteran, Wilmette native makes triumphant return in Drury Lane's 'The King and I'
"The King and I" - ★ ★ ★
Broadway veteran Betsy Morgan waited two decades for an opportunity to return to the Drury Lane Theatre where she made her professional debut as a child.
That opportunity came in the form of the Oakbrook Terrace theater's revival of "The King and I," in which the Wilmette native plays persistent, 19th-century pre-feminist Anna Leonowens, a British widow hired by the forward-thinking albeit tradition-bound King of Siam to educate his children.
It was worth the wait.
Morgan -- who played the role as Kelli O'Hara's standby in the 2015 Broadway revival of the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein classic -- is an ideal Anna. Poised and powerful, she possesses a sparkling, full-bodied soprano beautifully showcased in "Hello, Young Lovers." More charitable than wistful, Morgan's deeply felt version suggests a woman who, having lost, is grateful to have loved.
Her performance is exceptional.
Overall, the acting is solid, the singing is strong, and the youngsters who play the king's children are adorable. Every one.
Director Alan Paul can't erase the colonialism, gender inequality and Orientalism that underscore this 1951 show. But he moderates it with brisk, mindful staging that celebrates with abandon that moment when two people from different worlds find common ground.
For all the criticism directed at "The King and I," Hammerstein's book and lyrics suggest that communing across cultures is possible. The first act concludes with a meeting of the minds between Anna and King Mongkut (Adam Jacobs, Broadway's original Aladdin). At that moment, West and East come together, setting up the changing of the guard promised at the musical's conclusion when the King's oldest son Chulalongkorn outlines his reforms. That, along with Lady Thiang's sly observation that westerners feel "sentimental about the Oriental," suggests "The King and I" may not be hopelessly outdated.
The affable Jacobs plays the titular monarch -- who's eager to modernize but wary Western expansion could threaten his country's independence -- with a light touch. Almost too light. Moreover, aside from a moment during "Shall We Dance" when the king pulls Anna close, their interactions depict affection between friends, not a budding romance.
More convincing is the love affair between Burmese emissary Lun Tha (Ethan Le Phong) and his beloved Tuptim (classically trained soprano Paulina Yeung), the unwilling consort who fearlessly challenges the king's authority.
Sugar Grove native Matthew Uzarraga is pitch-perfect as oldest son Prince Chulalongkorn, a role he played at Marriott Theatre and Lyric Opera. Also deserving mention is Christine Bunuan's Lady Thiang, chief wife and mother of the crown prince whose tender stoicism on "Something Wonderful" reveals how well she knows her husband.
Wilson Chin and Riw Rakkulchon's airy, minimalist set with its grand columns and gossamer backdrop complement Izumi Inaba's gorgeous, glittering, jewel-encrusted costumes, which are based on Catherine Zuber's Tony Award-winning designs for the 2015 Broadway revival.
In the always compelling "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet -- featuring the fine vocal trio of Aurora Penepacker, Hannah Fernandes and Yuki Ozeki -- choreographer Darren Lee references Jerome Robbins' singular, stylized choreography from the original production. Visually sumptuous, the ballet features a lovely pas de deux between Kristine Bendul's Eliza and Kevin Kulp's George, a reminder that sometimes lovers get their happily ever after.
Ultimately, something's missing from Drury Lane's revival. It's the lush sound we expect to hear from a Rodgers and Hammerstein production. The problem, which may be the product of pandemic-related cutbacks, rests with the orchestra. Not the quality of the players, but the number. With only seven instrumentalists, the sound lacks the resonance we've come to expect from our suburban theaters. Technology is a wonderful thing, but electronic accompaniment cannot compensate for live musicians. Here's hoping Drury Lane welcomes them back soon.
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Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111, drurylanetheatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday; 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through May 22
Tickets: $64-$79, dinner-theater packages available
Running time: About 2 hours, 45 minutes, including intermission
Parking: In the adjacent lot
Rating: For all ages
COVID-19 precautions: Masks are optional