It’s a Pleasure Getting to Know Lyric Opera’s THE KING AND I

It’s a Pleasure Getting to Know Lyric Opera’s THE KING AND I

Under the direction of Lee Blakeley at Lyric Opera (who originally staged this production for Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet in 2014), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic musical THE KING AND I is heightened to the lavish and beautiful spectacle it deserves. This story of British school teacher Anna Leonowens who arrives in Siam to instruct the many children of the King has moments of sweeping grandiosity but also many of emotional intimacy—the Lyric’s production makes the full emotional arc a delight to watch. Visually, the creative team captures every inch of the musical’s opulence. Sue Blane’s costume designs are breathtakingly elaborate and incorporate an inspiring display of color; Anna’s magnificent hoop skirts are definitely a highlight. Jean-March Puissant’s set design also captures the grandiosity of a royal palace with many intricate details, while also giving the performers the space they need to execute Peggy Hickey’s choreography, and Rick Fisher’s lighting adds to the decadent atmosphere.

The most compelling reason to see any version of THE KING AND I is to revisit Rodgers and Hammerstein’s magnificent song catalog, including such numbers as “Getting to Know You,” “Hello, Young Lovers,” and, of course, “Shall We Dance?”—and here the Lyric does not disappoint. Conductor David Chase leads a masterful orchestra who deliver every note of Rodgers’s score to perfection, ensuring a full, all-encompassing sound.

And, in terms of the performances, this KING AND I also triumphs. While the ensemble on the whole is strong, this production truly belongs to the female artists—particularly Kate Baldwin as Anna, Rona Figueroa as the King’s head wife Lady Thiang, and Ali Ewoldt as new wife Tuptim. Kate Baldwin is simply extraordinary as Anna, both as an actor and a singer. Vocally, she handles each of Anna’s beautiful solo numbers with ease but also puts so much heart into her performance. While Baldwin owns every scene in which she appears, her first act solo “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” is a particular highlight, in which she exposes her indignation at many of the king’s customs. As the King of Siam, Paolo Montalban makes a nice counterpart to Baldwin’s Anna, though he’s not as strong vocally. Montalban succeeds in finding both the humor and the sincerity in his role. It’s great fun to watch Baldwin and Montalban together, particularly in a scene in the King’s Study at the end of the first act in which the King proclaims that Anna must never have her head above his, resulting in some rather strange positioning. As Lady Thiang, Figueroa astounds with her vocal ability and heartfelt performance, and her rendition of “Something Wonderful” is precisely as it sounds.

As star-crossed lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, who’s given to the King as a gift from the leader of Burma, Sam Simahk and Ali Ewoldt charm. But it is Ewoldt who truly stands out. Not only does Ewoldt have a crystalline voice that seems to effortlessly float into impossibly high notes, but hers is a performance of true emotional integrity. This is particularly true when Tuptim narrates the second act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” which she conceives to perform for the British dignitaries who visit the King’s palace. As Tuptim relates her version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, Ewoldt makes abundantly clear her character’s inner heartbreak.

It’s also necessary to mention that Hickey does extremely fine work with the choreography of this ballet, making it undoubtedly the centerpiece of the show’s dances. She makes “The Small House of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” a truly balletic spectacle and the production’s dancers execute with grace—in particular, Lisa Gillespie is compelling to watch in the principal role of Eliza.

The children’s ensemble of all local performers, ranging in age from 5 to 14, provide a great deal of entertainment as the King’s offspring, and “The March of the Siamese Children” is a fun moment in the first act. Charlie Babbo gives an appealing turn as Anna’s son, Louis, and Matthew Uzarraga is adorable as Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the Siamese throne—though he could stand to enunciate his lines more.

Above all, this is a wonderful take on THE KING AND I with some powerhouse voices on display that do justice to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic songs. And Kate Baldwin’s performance as Anna alone makes the production worth seeing.

This dazzling production of THE KING AND I is certainly worth getting to know-both for those familiar with this classic musical, or for those who have yet to experience it for the first time.

THE KING AND I runs through May 22 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker Drive. Tickets are $29-$199 and can be purchased online at, by phone at 312.827.5600, or in-person at the box office.

Photo by Todd Rosenberg

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