Chicago Theater Review: THE KING AND I (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on May 2, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


The King and I is a rather curious bundle of contradictions and opposites. First, it’s based on a true story, but plays out more like a fairy tale. In fact, it doesn’t seem all that strange that a king with dozens of submissive wives should fall in love with yet another woman, a feisty widow. Moreover, despite the very real threat of Western imperialism and accusations of barbarism, the story is remarkably forward-looking in its attitude towards education, especially of women. And one wonders why this Englishwoman, who comes from a royalist country, has such a problem with court etiquette? In this, she comes across as rather more American than British. Yet, such tensions in the story are largely what makes it so charming and compelling.

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The titular characters of the story are the King of Siam (Thailand) and the British schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, he hires to teach his many wives and children. Conflict builds from the start when Anna discovers that the king has failed to keep his promise to provide her with a house adjoining the palace, rather than a room in the palace itself. She is also reluctant to bow and prostrate herself as his subjects do. Yet, despite her forthright, independent manner, the king comes to respect and appreciate Anna’s intelligence, which he comes to rely upon. It’s not exactly a love story, but it comes close.

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In order to inject full-blown romance into the story, Oscar Hammerstein created the characters Tuptim and Lun Tha. Because Tuptim is one of the king’s many wives, she can only meet her lover in secret. Her duets with Lun Tha are some of the most poignant songs of all in this 1951 musical. Although the two attempt to escape, their love is not destined to succeed. This tragedy is one of the show’s contradictions, which does not dampen its overwhelmingly celebratory thrust.

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For a musical, The King and I has surprisingly little music; some of this is due to extensive cutting. Richard Rodgers provides few songs, and those are short. But there is plenty of drama and oodles of pageantry provided by the pomp and circumstance of a royal court. The latter is primarily what makes this show so enjoyable on the big stage with the resources that Lyric Opera can muster. The balletic version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Act II is one of the highlights of this creative production, especially with its delightful admixture of oriental operatic motifs. Under Lee Blakeley’s direction, the action runs quickly and smoothly, with just the right balance between scenes of intimacy and scenes of grandeur.

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Kate Baldwin plays Anna, the “I” of the title, with confidence and pluck. While Baldwin excels at playing the matronly schoolmarm, she is less convincing as a romantic lead. Fortunately, she sings and dances beautifully, through such memorable numbers as “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune.” In contrast to her maturity, the king seems like a spoiled child, always used to getting his way. And this is how Paulo Montalban portrays the king: a tyrannical husband, loving father, and occasionally wise ruler. His singing leaves much to be desired, though it is difficult to gauge how much of this flatness and lack of expression is purposeful. Ali Ewoldt’s Tuptim is one of the show’s most endearing performances.

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Visually, The King and I gets it mostly right. Sue Blane’s costumes are stunning, from the brightly-colored dresses of the royal wives to the gold-spiked headpieces of the king and his officials. And then there are the gigantic hoop skirts worn by Anna, which offer more than one welcome dose of humor. Although it could be said that Jean-Marc Puissant’s abstract sets allow Blane’s magnificent designs to sparkle without distraction, one feels that he ought to have done more. Peggy Hickey’s choreography makes the most of the cast’s talented dancers, among whom Lisa Gillespie stands out as Eliza.

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A highly entertaining show illuminating a fascinating historical episode, The King and I is easily the most accessible production of Lyric Opera’s 2015/2016 season. The others, however, are well worth the effort, from the power and drama of Verdi’s Nabucco to the delight and whimsy of Rossini’s Cinderella. It’s been a wonderful season, but next year promises to be even better.

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photos by Todd Rosenberg and Andrew Cioffi

The King and I
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on May 22, 2016
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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