By Erika Brown Thomas
The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s stunning, not-to-be-missed production of The King and I is “something wonderful” and then some.
It is a visually breathtaking, poignant and charming performance that will leave audiences with an indelible impression on their hearts (and on their seats as the show embraces an old-fashioned three-hour run time). Click here for a synopsis and history of the show.
An incredible orchestra of masterful musicians under the direction of David Chase pays a sonorous tribute to the richly stacked score of this Rogers and Hammerstein classic. Maestro Chase and Lee Blakely (director) thankfully made some much needed and appropriate cuts to the score, which originally contributed to the show’s premiere performance run time of a whopping five hours!
Anna and the King, played respectively by Kate Baldwin and Paolo Montalban, have a tangible chemistry that connects audiences closely to the stage in spite of the spaciousness of the opera hall. Baldwin displays a depth-filled performance with typical English “coldness” at moments while contrasting this with an intense passion that flares as “Missus Anna” experiences clashes with a foreign culture and king. This is exemplified in her Act I performance of “Shall I Tell You What I Think Of You.”
Montalban is the King of Siam and also the King of Hearts. He is winsome, handsome and cleverly comical as this monarch searching for balance between what has been and what will be. A star in his own right, Montalban, neither imitates nor copies the iconic Yul Brynner and yet presents the same strength and tenderness that is necessitated by this complex and questing character.
Ali Ewoldt sings circles around her cast mates as the tragic Princess Tuptim. With an easy and sensitively soaring soprano range, she is unparalleled by other vocal performances heard within the show.
Tuptim and Lun Tha (Sam Simahk) are particularly compelling as the ill-fated lovers on the Lyric’s grand stage. Whether outside realistic palace gates or in a schoolroom designed by Jean-Marc Puissant and under the refreshing direction of Blakely, their illicit encounters give rise to a certain urgency often lacking in many adaptations of this quintessential musical.
Matthew Uzarraga (Prince Chulalongkorn) and Charlie Babbo (Louis Leonowens) give notable performances as they journey together down a road of friendship and adversity. Uzarraga’s presence in the final scene of the musical is especially endearing.
Costume Designer, Sue Blane, captivates the eye with every stitch on stage. From the ornate and authentic wardrobe of the Siamese court to the austerely beautiful English gowns worn by Baldwin, the wow factor is more than present, with several costumes even rendering their own applause. The most anticipated gown of the evening, did not disappoint. Its elegance and careful design came with an original color choice of deep ruby that luxuriously shimmers as it waltzes round and round to the swells of “Shall We Dance.”
The emotional climax of the production, however, is the presentation of “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” choreographed by Peggy Hickey and enhanced by lighting designer Rick Fisher. This scene stands alone as an outstanding performance piece. The chorus of singers and ensemble of dancers work together with Ewoldt (Tuptim) to weave the parallel story of slavery for the play within a play. Several spectacular moments focus attention and powerfully bring previous story lines full circle as only live theatre can.
Any professional performer knows better than to try and compete with the charisma of child actors on stage—in this production, that is doubly, no triply… it is is exponentially true. With a cast of 14 royal children and one English school boy, there are none better received than the talented youths accompanied by the adult ensemble counterparts.
This is Lyric Opera’s fourth year presenting a Rodgers and Hammerstein production, deftly tapping into a need in the musical theatre community for these well-loved and classic musicals. The nostalgia and romance of this grandiose genre is a perfect fit for the operatic stage and the familiarity with which the audience meets each song and spoken line is palpable.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “The King and I” through May 22nd at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive Chicago. More information and tickets are available by phone at (312) 827.5600 or online here. Publicity photos by Todd Rosenberg.