Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The King and I
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Bullets Over Broadway


Paolo Montalban and Kate Baldwin
Photo by Todd Rosenberg
Given that this show was written for a female star (Gertrude Lawrence) and made a star out of its leading man ("you'll" know who I'm talking about), any production of The King and I will need charismatic performers in the roles of Anna and the King, no matter how marvelous everything else in this elaborate musical is. This gorgeous and gigantic production that even has a life-size elephant puppet on stage has such star-quality performers in its leads in Kate Baldwin and Paolo Montalban. As impressive as the costumes by Sue Blane are and no matter how many musicians are in the pit, or children and dancers on stage, director Lee Blakeley knows that at its heart, The King and I is all about those two people in the title.

Baldwin and Montalban both prove themselves worthy of being in the upper echelon of Broadway leading players. Baldwin has come closer to this goal than her leading man, having won the leads in two Broadway shows which had their admirers but failed to do big business—the 2009 Finian's Rainbow revival and 2013's Big Fish. Montalban had a major role (Manjiro) in Roundabout's 2004 Pacific Overtures, but has worked mostly Off-Broadway and in regional productions since. For my money, Baldwin is every bit the performer and presence of the reigning Broadway romantic lead, Kelli O'Hara, who has played the leads in the Lincoln Center's revivals of South Pacific and originated Anna in the still-running The King and I. Baldwin has the Victorian elegance we associate with the role together with the spunkiness the script provides and the historical record supports. She's lovely and lovable as Anna and sings the show's standards in a flawless soprano worthy of the historic opera house in which she's performing.

Montalban gives the King a youthful, likable take. His King is completely self-aware, fully understanding the contradictions between actually possessing the omniscience his subjects expect of a king and the demands that he maintain a façade of infallibility even as he recognizes his own limitations. It's a charming and humorous take on the role and surprisingly sets up his ultimate crisis—when he feels compelled to brutally punish his errant wife Tuptim—most effectively. We understand how contrary to his values and his desire to be esteemed by Anna are the actions his believes he must take in order to maintain the respect of his lieutenants and subjects. Though the role gives Montalban little opportunity to display his impressive bari-tenor, it's meaty enough to let him show off his acting chops. He responds with an entertaining, nuanced and fully complete character.

The production boasts an impressive Tuptim as well in Ali Ewoldt, whom Chicago audiences last saw as Maria in the first national tour of the recent West Side Story revival. She's an operatically trained soprano who's worked mostly in musical theater (she was the opening night Cosette in the 2006 Les Misérables revival) and is vocally impressive on her solo and two duets with Lun Tha (Sam Simahk), conveying the pain of the "princess" who has been essentially forced into sex slavery. Ewoldt is the closest thing to an opera singer in this production, which is a departure from Lyric's practices on its previous three productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to include a mix of operatic and musical theater performers in their casts. Simahk and Rona Figueroa (whose Broadway credits include Eponine in Les Misérables, Kim in Miss Saigon, and Nine) as Lady Thiang do nice work on their big numbers, though they don't particularly flesh out their underwritten characters. There's strong character work from Alan Ariano as The Kralahome and young Matthew Uzarraga is an unusually (for a child performer) strong singer as the plucky Prince Chulalongkorn.

Lyric's series of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, which began three years ago with a Gary Griffin-directed Oklahoma!, followed by Marc Bruni's take on The Sound of Music and Rob Ashford's Carousel, has given audiences the chance to see these classics performed, it would seem, without a single compromise when it comes to scale. The King and I orchestra numbers 37 musicians - the current Broadway revival has just 29 - still a lot by current Broadway standards. The show demands a large cast, what with the need for an ensemble of the King's children. The current Broadway revival has a cast of 45, but this production numbers 60 - allowing a dance corps of 14 (to perform the Jerome Robbins ballet "The Small House of Uncle Thomas") in addition to an ensemble of 13, plus 7 wives.

Physically, the production, which is a remount of Blakeley's 2014 staging at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, spares no expense as well. Sue Blane's costumes are magnificent, including everything from Victorian hoop skirts and gowns, through heavily ornamented wear for the royals and bright pastels for the wives and children. Jean-Marc Puissant's set is simpler, based mostly on a series of panels which are raised and lowered from the flies or slide in and out from the wings. Some of the panels are painted fabric, others grids based on geometric designs that are suggestive of the palace architecture. And then there's the aforementioned puppet elephant in the procession just before the show's final scene.

So, while this is certainly a King and I not to be missed, it is not a definitive one, because this show is at its heart an intimate story of a complicated relationship between two complicated people. While every element of this production is stupendous—and none of it superfluous (the visual spectacle communicates the setting while separate dance corps and large orchestra are needed to fully execute what Rodgers, Hammerstein, and Robbins created)—there is a loss of intimacy in a 3,500 seat theatre. But what would a perfectly sized King and I be? That ... is a puzzlement.

The King and I will play the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through May 22, 2016. For ticket information visit www.lyricopera.org.


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