The King and I

                                       Lyric Opera

                                       by Dan Zeff

Chicago– The Lyric Opera’s annual venture into Broadway musical comedy is the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “The King and I.” The results are mixed, some problems built into the show and others residing with the production. But the negatives are more than neutralized by Kate Baldwin’s magnificent performance as the “I” of the title.

Baldwin plays Anna Leonowens, a widow with a young son who travels to Siam (now Thailand) to teach the many children of Mongkut, the king of Siam, during the 1860’s. The story is built on Anna’s actual experiences in Siam popularized in Margaret Landon’s novel “Anna and the King of Siam.” Baldwin has a wonderfully supple and expressive singing voice, not a surprise in any star performance at the world class Lyric Opera. Where Baldwin triumphs is in her rendering of a intelligent, resilient, resourceful woman alone in the man’s world of the mid Victorian 1800’s, strong willed but never willful, a feminist before such a term existed but never abrasive or self righteous. Baldwin’s performance is a vocal triumph, but the depth and maturity (garnished with occasional playfulness) of her acting elevates her Anna to the definitive level.

The story of “The King and I” is basically the prickly relationship between Anna and the king, a culture clash pitting the independent minded woman from the West and the autocratic monarch from the East. Gradually the barriers are breached and the two come to a respectful, possibly affectionate accommodation before the show’s somber and emotional ending.

Traditionally the show belongs to the actor playing the king, mostly because of the legendary performance by Yul Brynner, who was the original king when the musical first opened in 1951. He went on to play the role more than 4,600 times. Brynner invested the king with a wonderful stage presence as the king fighting for his kingdom against outside forces that threatened the sovereignty of Siam. I saw Brynner twice and his wry humor blended with royal authority carried the show.

PHOTO Credit:Todd Rosenberg

Paolo Montalban is a lightweight king at the Lyric Opera, giving a performance that leans on the comic elements in the character while short changing Mongkut’s strengths as the social and political centerpiece of his country. The indication of an erotic charge between the king and Anna near the end of the show is difficult to accept, given the strength of Anna’s personality matched against the almost two-dimensional king. The problem is that Montalban’s king isn’t royal enough. He’s more of a cartoon bully who terrorizes those around him, especially the women. That upsets the dramatic balance between the dominant figures in the show and for the first time in my exposure to the musical, “The King and I” becomes Anna’s show, a challenge Baldwin fortunately seizes with joyous results.

In fairness to Montalban, and any actor who plays the king, Rodgers and Hammerstein are at fault in their delineation of the king and his world. There is a patronizing attitude toward the Siamese from the king on down. The show often treats them as innocent, almost childlike exotics to be viewed with tolerant condescension from the Western viewpoint. That may have been acceptable back in 1951 but it has a whiff of racism today. The show has not been a favorite in Thailand, where people consider the portrait of the king and the Siamese court a national insult and the suggestion of sexual tension between the king and Anna an affront.

Director Lee Blakeley has been content to allow the comic opportunities in the book to run free, earning many laughs from the audience at my performance. The majestic possibilities of the story recede to the background. “The King and I” can be funny, but it undercuts the dramatic heft of the story to make it this funny.

The physical staging is a mixed bag. The story allows for much spectacle in bringing the color of 19th century Siam to a Western audience. Sue Blane’s costume designs are a glorious rainbow of colors, especially the wardrobe of the many females in the show. But Jean-Marc Puissant’s set design doesn’t take advantage of the exoticism of the Bangkok of 150 years ago. The scene changes are marked by giant sliding panels and screens that barely suggest the eye-catching architecture of the country. The Lyric has the resources to wow its audiences with the colorful locale, an opportunity deliberately minimized in favor of abstract designs that only vaguely indicate a subdued Eastern flavor.

The original choreography by Jerome Robbins was a prime contributor to making “The King and I” a super hit, especially in the two major production numbers, “The March of the Siamese Children” and “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” At the Lyric, choreographer Peggy Hickey hasn’t done much to put a special stamp on either number. The march does introduce a selection of the king’s many children to the newly arrived Anna. The children are all adorable, but the number as a whole never builds either musically or choreographically under the direction of conductor David Chase.

“The Small House of Uncle Thomas” is one of the great ballets in Broadway history, rendering the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” into a Siamese spectacle. The Lyric interpretation was long and curiously unspectacular, with portions more resembling “Swan Lake” than the colorful dance tradition of the East.

PHOTO Credit:Todd Rosenberg

Balanced against the difficulties in the book and the revival are the magnificent Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. The list of titles is a hall of fame of wonderful melody and stirring lyrics. The honor roll starts with “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and continues with “Getting to Know You,” “We Kiss in a Shadow,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and “Shall We Dance”—each one a gem.

The show centers on Anna and the king but the supporting roles at the Lyric are filled satisfactorily or better. In particular, Ali Woldt displays a radiant voice as Tuptim, part of tragic love affair that forms the show’s subplot. The Lyric has recruited a large assemblage of area children to play the king’s young children. They are all cute, and the audience ate them up, especially a tiny tot who looked about three years old but delivered her stage moments with a professionalism that drew appreciative “awws” of affection from the spectators.

I left the Civic Opera House with a feeling of disappointment. On the plus side is Kate Baldwin’s magnificent performance as Anna, the blazing color of the costumes, and the wonderful music. Nothing much can be done about the patronizing Westernized view of Siamese culture, which is integral to the book. But its effect could have been mitigated by a more complex king and a visual presentation that more vividly honored the splendor of a rich culture with roots that went back centuries.

The show gets a rating of three stars.

The last performance of “The King and I” is May 22. For schedule and ticket information, call 312 332 2244 extension 5600, go to the box office at 20 North Wacker Drive, or visit

            Contact Dan at May 8, 2016

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