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By-the-book ‘King and I’ at Lyric Opera lacks emotional intimacy

Paolo Montalban and Kate Baldwin in Lyric Opera's production of Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I." | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Something happens when you take a Broadway musical — even one like Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” among the most profound shows in the canon — and put it on the stage of a grand opera house. A certain grandeur and lavish beauty comes with that magnification of scale, but so does a loss of emotional intimacy. And so it is with the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s latest entry in its American Musical Initiative, now in its fourth season.

Somewhat recommended
When: Through May 22
Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Tickets: $29 – $199
Info: www.lyricopera.org/king
Run time: 3 hours, with one intermission

While I remember leaving the 2014 Marriott Theatre production of “The King and I” in tears, I left the Sunday afternoon performance of the Lyric production feeling I’d seen the heft of the royal treasury of the Kingdom of Siam in the 1860s. But I was not really heartbroken by this extraordinary, ever timely story that deals with everything from cross-cultural connections and misunderstandings, to the tension between maintaining tradition and adapting to the modern world, to the balance of power between men and women.

This production, initially created by director Lee Blakeley for the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, has been re-cast with a number of Broadway veterans and Chicago actors. And Blakeley has used a mostly presentational style (the story stops when a major song is to be sung), that is not just antiquated for Broadway, but for opera as well.

Paolo Montalban and Kate Baldwin star in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of "The King and I." (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Paolo Montalban and Kate Baldwin star in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “The King and I.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Based on a true story turned into a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, “The King and I” arrived on Broadway in 1951, just as this country was embracing its post-World War II super-power status and still dealing with racial segregation.

The story, of course, is about the arrival in Siam of the attractive, proto-feminist Welsh woman, Anna Leonowens (played by Kate Baldwin), a worldly widow with a young son and some diplomatic connections. Anna has been hired by the King of Siam (Paolo Montalban) to serve as schoolmistress to some of his 77 children (those born to the favorites among his many wives). Chief among them is the King’s young heir, Prince Chulalongkorn (Matthew Uzarraga, who has understood how to command a stage since he was a tot, and does so to exceptional effect here). He is the son of Lady Thiang (the warm yet authoritative Rona Figueroa), the wife who clearly loves the King, and will learn “the scientific” thinking of the West.

Rona Figueroa and Matthew Uzarraga in "The King and I" (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Rona Figueroa and Matthew Uzarraga in “The King and I” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Crucial to any production of “The King and I” is the chemistry between Anna and the King. Baldwin, with her lovely, pitch-perfect voice and English certitude makes her arguments persuasively throughout. So does Montalban, but his voice leaves something to be desired, and the chemistry between the two is more formulaic than shot through with the excitement and fear of attraction. Their iconic polka, “Shall We Dance?,” garnered applause, but had none of the thrill of the Marriott edition in which the music and dancing accelerated with such speed that the erotic charge became palpable.

Another iconic scene, “The March of the Siamese Children,” in which an endless line of the King’s adorable children are presented to Anna, and pay homage to their father, is charming, but would benefit from faster pacing. The second act’s “ballet” sequence, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist tale, and choreographed by Peggy Hickey, is so grand-scale it almost overwhelms the story, although the King’s “Hamlet”-like response (he realizes American slave master Simon of Lagree is much like him, and is ultimately defeated) is made clear. The “slave” in this case is Tuptim (the silvery-voiced Ali Ewoldt), the Burmese girl given to the King as a “gift,” whose escape with her lover, Lun Tha (the warm-voiced Sam Simahk), leads to the King’s collapse.

Alan Ariano is a severe if rather one-note Kralahome (prime minister), with Charlie Babbo as Anna’s very British son, John Lister as a ship captain, and David Parkes in a fine cameo as a British envoy. Conductor David Chase gives the score a straightforward if generic rendering. The costumes by Sue Blane are lavish, as is the scenic design by Jean-Marc Puissant, though too often the grand gilded gates and contracting and expanding ink-etched screens feel oppressively weighty, and dwarf the actors.

Amidst the lobby chatter I heard several people say they’d never seen a live performance of “The King and I.” This one is by the book, but by no means definitive.

4/27/16 3:31:19 PM -- Lyric Opera of Chicago Presents Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" First Dress Rehearsal © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Sam Simahk and Ali Ewoldt in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “The King and I.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)