Chicago Theatre Review
The King and I – Lyric Opera of Chicago
Throughout this bewitching musical classic, based upon Margaret Landon’s historically-based 1944 novel, Anna and the King of Siam, love courses through almost every scene and song. Accompanied by her young son, Louis, Anna Leonowens, the young, English schoolteacher, bravely travels to the Orient in the early 1860’s to accept a governess position for the children of the Siamese King. Despite being recently widowed, Anna’s still in love with her departed husband. Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife, also loves her own husband, yet she still understands that he isn’t perfect. The King is strong, proud yet unwilling to listen to most women, while having many doubts and weaknesses, as well. Princess Tuptim, the young Burmese girl, presented to the King as a gift, has sadly been ripped away from her own lover, the young scholar, Lun Tha. And, in spite of their tempestuous relationship, a love that can only barely be recognized, but never acted upon gradually builds between Anna and the King.
Grand scale visual and musical extravaganza weaves across the Lyric stage, thanks to Lee Blakeley’s wise and majestic direction. Like most every production at this venue, Mr. Blakeley’s staging feels impressive and grandiose. Every moment of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s 1951 masterpiece is heaped in spectacle and is sometimes peppered with unexpected surprises and bits of humor. This monarch and his English schoolteacher manage the journey from courteous respect to genuine caring, but the relationship often feels rather stiff and stilted.
Rodgers & Hammerstein understood that much of their shows’ popularity evolved from the love stories told through their words and music. In this musical the primary plot doesn’t feel like a traditional romantic tale. To give audiences what they expected, the composer and playwright invented a subplot, a forbidden love affair between two of his minor characters, Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha. This doomed relationship provided that element the theatergoers demanded. And, despite a continual rocky relationship between the King and Mrs. Anna, the manner in which Mr. Blakeley has staged and guided his two talented leading actors allows the audience to observe their care and deep respect developing, right through to the show’s heavyhearted finale.
Mr. Blakeley also has the advantage of a handsome and talented cast. Chicago actress and Broadway star Kate Baldwin, whose stalwart and very proper Anna embraces every subtle nuance, possesses a lovely, expressive voice that caresses each song. She masterfully carries off a challenging role once created by the legendary Gertrude Lawrence. Navigating the stage with grace and sophistication, and peppered with spunk and determination, Ms. Baldwin makes this iconic hoop-skirted lady her very own. She’s matched by a bold, enterprising, yet somewhat younger-acting King, played with command by New York actor Paolo Montalban. Backed by an impressive resume, Mr. Montalban makes a good stab at this autocrat, whose enthusiasm for scientific scholarship and wisdom frequently collides with his ego. The actor shows strength but not necessarily the necessary maturity. Displaying a personality that’s continually at odds with itself, while coping with and being drawn to this frustrating, intelligent woman, makes this King engrossing. Montalban’s monarch basically supports Ms. Baldwin’s lovely, more mature Anna, who ultimately succeeds as the real heart of this production.
The supporting cast brings gorgeous voices, graceful movement and commanding performances to the ensemble. Rona Figueroa is a beautiful, charitable, take-charge Lady Thiang. Her operatic voice makes her rendition of the touching, “Something Wonderful,” indeed, something wonderful. Ali Ewoldt and Sam Simahk are exquisite in the roles of Tuptim and Lun Tha. All three actors create well-rounded characters and sing Richard Rodgers’ score as if born to play these roles. The young lovers’ peerless performances of “My Lord and Master,” “We Kiss in a Shadow” and the lush, “I Have Dreamed” are laced with a strong air of melancholy. Alan Ariano makes the Kralahome a fiercely stern, finely executed adversary in Anna’s life. John Lister is a cautionary father figure as a finely-spoken Captain Orton, and David Parkes is dapper and charming as British dignitary, Sir Edward Ramsey. Mr. Parkes also offers a subtle challenge to the King for Anna’s affections.
The children are all angelic and affecting, particularly young Charlie Babbo, as Anna’s son Louis and, as a terrific Crown Prince Chulalongkorn, the talented young Matthew Uzarraga. Both young actors effortlessly leave their mark, with Mr. Uzarraga creating a perfect, humorously pint-sized version of his father, the King. In the play’s final, tear-filled moments, as the Prince inherits his new title, we hear his governess’ influence in his first proclamations that herald the beginnings of a new era in Siam.
Peggy Hickey’s choreographic talents have been enjoyed everywhere, from the Lyric Opera to the Broadway stage. Here she creates a montage of elegant movement for numbers like the spirited “Getting to Know You,” the joyous “Shall We Dance” and, of course, the musical’s showpiece, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which is far more grandiose, eye-popping and balletic than most productions. Much credit also goes to the show’s ensemble of talented dancers, especially Jason Garcia Ignacio as a terrifying Simon Legree, Lisa Gillespie as Eliza and David Tai Kim as Angel/George.
The stunning visual beauty, opulence and splendor of King Mongkut’s Siamese palace falls to set designer Jean-Marc Puissant, with his stunning, Asian-influenced sliding panels and lattice work. Sue Blane, who created costumes for the Parisian production two years ago, has once again outdone herself with this vast wardrobe. She’s provided spectacular antebellum fashions for Anna, ranging from heavy, multilayered hoop-skirted creations, beginning in black widows weeds, and gradually progressing to a gorgeous, claret red satin ball gown for “Shall We Dance.” Beyond these, she’s designed the more delicate silks and satin brocades for her large cast of Siamese wives, children and citizens, including a number of breathtaking robes for the King.
Everything about this beautiful production deserves a standing ovation. Michael Black’s skilled work is evident as chorus master. Maestro David Chase’s sumptuous, full-sounding 38-member orchestra offers meticulous musical direction and supports the voices of his magnificently talented cast.
At three hours in length, this production is a thoughtful, unhurried production, much in the style of the original 1951 production. Whether theatergoers are paying a return visit to this lovely, timeless tale of culture shock and romance or enjoying a first-time encounter with Anna and her King, the Lyric’s melodic, visually stunning and handsomely executed production of an American classic is both affectionate and grand. A sweeping bow of gratitude to this world class opera company for bringing Chicago another excellent production from the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 30-May 22 by the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-332-2244 or by going to www.lyricopera.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com