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‘The King and I’ at Lyric Opera: Royal treat, princely delight, courtly jewel, etc., etc., etc.

Submitted by on May 4, 2016 – 8:33 am


In dancing, the King (Paolo Montalban) reminds the teacher (Kate Baldwin), one hand goes around the waist. (Todd Rosenberg)Review: “The King and I,” musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, at Lyric Opera of Chicago through May 22. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Even amid the multi-year run of successes the Lyric Opera of Chicago has enjoyed in its annual spring offerings of great American musicals, the current production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” is exceptional, a theatrical experience as visually and musically resplendent as it is emotionally true.

As the culturally contentious twosome at the story’s heart, English school teacher Anna Leonowens and the prideful King of Siam who has hired her to help bring his country into the modern world, Kate Baldwin and Paolo Montalban make an irresistible pair: headstrong, passionate, rollicking, “et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.,” as the King doubtless would complete the thought. 

Kate Baldwin as the teacher Anna Leonowens in 'The King and I' at Lyric Opera. (Todd Rosenberg)

Baldwin brings the kind of show-stopping vocal glory essential to a character, a widow still quite susceptible to romantic yearning, who inevitably leads the way on this exotic journey. Her warm turns in “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” both drew ripping ovations from an opening night audience Baldwin held well in hand start to finish.

Vocally, the role of the King presents a paradox. His one big number, “A Puzzlement,” in which he reflects on how things that once seemed so certain have become anything but, is deceptively difficult – and here, as usual, it’s tackled by an appealing actor whose chief strength lies not in his singing. But Montalban, moving by fine degrees from droll to riotously funny, cuts so endearing a figure as the visionary, albeit conflicted, King that we happily roll along with his earnest rumination on the conundrum of life.

By the time teacher and monarch get around to their brush with romance, in a whirling and charged “Shall We Dance?,” Baldwin and Montalban have hammered out such a complicated – and thus credible – relationship that we can almost imagine this liberated English lady and this iron-willed ruler arriving at something deeper than mere détente.

The King of Siam (Paolo Montalban) is torn between his traditions and Western ideas. (Todd Rosenberg)“The King and I” is fraught with complications, or puzzlements, some of which either go unresolved or end badly. It is a shadowed romance troubled by hard realities: Just so, the beautiful young Tuptim, a gift to the King of Siam, is in love with the handsome lad who delivered her into this honorable new station of wife among wives. A highlight here is the ardent duet “We Kiss in the Shadows” between Tuptim (Ali Ewoldt) and her swain (Sam Simahk).

Meanwhile, there’s the touching compassion of the King’s head wife, Lady Thiang (an altogether majestic performance by Rona Figueroa), who observes Tuptim’s dangerous game but decides to deal with it discreetly – and not just to spare the girl. The wise and caring head wife does not want to see her king humiliated: In the show’s absolute musical peak, in a soaring account of “Something Wonderful,” Figueroa conveyed Lady Thiang’s profound belief that her husband and ruler possesses qualities that define greatness.

Just as the King’s modern aspirations for his country are borne out in the royal edicts of his ascending son (Matthew Uzarraga), the real hope for East-West understanding resides in the friendship between the prince and Anna’s son (Charlie Babbo). This production draws a key factor of vitality from the savvy, edgy interplay of two actors accomplished beyond their years.

A Far Eastern spin on 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' provides a colorful interlude, and a moral parable. (Todd Rosenberg)

Originally designed for the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris by Jean-Marc Puissant, and directed there as here by Lee Blakeley, the Lyric’s “King and I” projects an aura of grandeur via richly imaginative sets that fly and change rather than loom in stationary opulence. There is an energizing lightness of bearing here.

That vibrancy and ephemeral brilliance are nowhere more telling or rewarding than in the royal household’s balletic production of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” put on for a group of visiting British officials. Concocted by Tuptim as a parable about the injustice of slavery and the meaning of true love, this free, distinctly Eastern adaptation of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” proves an enchanting theatrical arabesque, a serious narrative beautifully costumed by Sue Blane with elegantly performed choreography devised by Peggy Hickey.

The finishing touch to all this is provided in the pit, where the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by David Chase delivers a colorful score with the same precision and panache one hears throughout the opera season.

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