Lyric’s “The King and I” Review – Broadway Classic with Opera House Flair

Kate Baldwin's strong performance as Anna is captivating, seen here with handsome Paolo Montalban, who plays the King of Siam with a playful tenderness mixed in with the macho of the monarch


If you didn’t rush home to listen again to your recording of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”, you weren’t in the same Civic Opera House that we were. 


The story is presaged in the opening scene when Capt. Orton (John Lister) warns Anna Leonowens (Kate Baldwin) and her son Louis (Charles Babbo) that Siam's ways and court may prove challenging to an Englishwoman


Broadway music doesn’t get any better than this wonderful Rodgers & Hammerstein score.   If you’ve never had a day where you put “The March of the Siamese Children” on automatic repeat for a musical binge fest ,your life is not yet complete. 


Here again we see the Lyric Opera’s formula of taking Broadway gems and adding opera house dimensions to the production.   The Lyric does Rodgers & Hammerstein proud!


Anna (Kate Baldwin) surrounded by the adorable Siamese children who bind her to her work in Siam


True to the opera genre, the first ingredient has to be a diva, and Kate Baldwin as Anna (the tutor of the Siamese King’s children that the story is about) has the vocal power and personality that is able to reach to the upper balconies. 


Kate Baldwin as Anna is teaching her students, when the Prince (Matthew Uzarraga) readies for a tantrum


She reels us in with a just a few notes, oozing musical charisma.  


The KIng (Paolo Montalban) introduces Anna to his first wife among wives, Lady Thiang (Rona Figeroa), whose later sings "Something Wonderful", explaining to Anna her great love for the King


If she hadn’t taken off her larger than life hoop skirt in one scene, some of us might have thought there were huge soul magnets in her skirt that help to explain her effect on us.


Anna (Kate Baldwin) and the King (Paolo Montalban) separate their sparring children, following the Prince's tantrum upon learning that Siam is a small country


The second ingredient Lyric adds in is the stuff of opera house spectacle.  While the set is curiously spartan at times (Jean-Marc Puissant, Set Designer) , we do get treated to a white elephant puppet, that is one of the many ways this production delights someone who has recently logged several months in fast-changing  Thailand and sees “The King and I” story in a very Thai then-and-now context. 


Here a close shot of the King (Paolo Montalban) receiving one of his children during the spectacular "March of the Siamese Children" that is done in pure opera house spectacle fashion. Photo: Andrew Cioffi


We also get treated to much spectacle juice from the masterful dancers (in a variety of colorful costumes overflowing with cultural reference point details (Original choreography by Jerome Robbins; Peggy Hickey Choreography; Costume Designer:  Sue Blane).  And ,the costumes were comfortable to dance in, as we had learned from Eliza understudy Mai Claypool --- read the Splash preview story here.


Dance figures large in this production of "The King & I". Here Eliza (lead dancer Lisa Gillespie) performs her solo in the re-enactment of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"


But above all, what we get from this production is Rodgers’ music so exquisitely delivered. At the Lyric, it’s all about the music, and this production is no exception.


Not unlike so many dying scenes in many operas we see on Lyric stages, this production of the King's imminent death is a tear jerker presented in grand opera spectacle style


You may have a great recording of this production, but there is nothing like hearing those first opening chords of the overture with a live orchestra.   More though, although it feels sacrilegious to say this about a recording that is so dear, you can’t help but notice that the vocal power from this cast clearly outshines that in the original Broadway recording.  It’s not only Kate Baldwin who is the stronger voiced Anna,


Young lovers Tuptim (Ali Ewoldt) and Lun Tha (Sam Simahk) gave a stirringly strong performance of the beautiful "We Kiss in a Shadow". Photo: Andrew Cioffi


but also we get a more powerful rendition by Ali Ewoldt as Tuptim emotively singing “My Lord and Master”, and then later being joined by Sam Simahk as Lun Tha to sing “We Kiss in the Shadows”. 


Lady Thiang (Rona Figueroa) talks to her soon-to-be-king son, Prince Chulalongkorn (Matthew Uzarraga). Uzarraga, 12 years old, gives a standout performance throughout


Similarly Rona Figueroa as Lady Thiang singing “Something Wonderful” lets Rodger’s music sparkle in new ways.    


Anna's son Louis (Charlie Babbo) strikes up a friendship with Prince Chulalongkorn and future King (Matthew Uzarraga) performing a reprise of the King's lament "A Puzzlement".


It’s easy to imagine that the emotive power of this and any Broadway production would be easier to convey in a smaller space.  Even the largest Broadway theater spaces are more intimate.  


Here the King (Paolo Montalban) and Anna (Kate Baldwin) are readying for "Shall We Dance". In the Lyric Opera News we learned that it was actually Yul Brynner who inserted an underlying love tension between the two characters, in hopes of sparing the show from being a total flop. When Rodgers saw this he reportedly wrote this classic song in less than four minutes! Photo: Andrew Cioffi


The King (Paolo Montalban) leads his court in praying to Buddha for success in winning over the visiting British diplomats, as Anna (Kate Baldwin) looks on


For example, Paolo Montalban is obviously a fine actor who brings a top-layer sweetness and light-hearted comic timing to his macho King role that feels so very Thai to a recent visitor, but the Opera House carries voices better than it does actor’s in-character facial expressions.


As a play within a play, the visiting English diplomats are treated to a Thai interpretation and performance of Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin"


That said, this writer is very glad that the Lyric sticks to it knitting and does what it does best—musical prowess, spectacle, diva, costumes, dancing -- bringing Broadway to Chicago in  a new way..  Hopefully this more popular Broadway musical genre DOES bring in a new audience to the Lyric season proper, which this coming year includes several operas-for-beginners-and-opera-diehards-alike such as “The Magic Flute” and “Carmen”.


For information and tickets to “The King and I” or other Lyric Opera productions in the coming season visit the Lyric Opera website or call 312 827 5600.


 Photos:  Todd Rosenberg, unless otherwise indicated




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