It’s a bit surprising to me that, as a self-proclaimed theater nerd, I haven’t ever seen “The King and I” before. After all, it’s from the same team that brought my all-time favorite to life (“The Sound of Music”), so it’s kind of a no-brainer that I would love this one, too.
If You Go
- Through May 22
- and up
- Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago
But now that I’ve seen the Lyric Opera’s version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic, I’m not sure I ever need to see another version. It’s just that good. (Don’t worry, Yul Brynner, I’ll get around to the movie version eventually!)
What impressed me most about Lyric’s staging of “The King and I” – beyond the stunning costumes, the glorious music and a heroine after my own heart – is the scope of the production. The sets perfectly evoke 1860s Siam (modern-day Thailand), while the huge cast brings the king’s court to vibrant life, from the littlest performer (Leila Koss steals the show, and hearts, as Princess Ying Yaowalak) to the leads. I’ve always been impressed with Lyric’s ability to find talented performers among local kids, and that’s borne out with the 13 kids cast as King Mongkut’s royal children (shout out to April 2015 cover kid Avonlea Hong!). Their “The March of the Siamese Children” was a highlight for me.
Of course, the adult performers are total pros, agilely portraying a cultural and time period much different from our own, but with remarkable similarities. Paolo Montalban is by turn hilarious and heartbreaking, as he portrays a rageaholic king whose bravado hides a self-conscious ruler who’s afraid of the future (his solo number “A Puzzlement” was a personal favorite). And Kate Baldwin truly shines as Anna Leonowens, the confident, spirited Englishwoman tasked with teaching his multitude of children (and wives and concubines) English and the ways of the “civilized” world – and maybe, just maybe, soften the king’s proud heart.
As an inveterate romantic, I practically swooned when Anna appears in her iconic ball gown and the pair sing “Shall We Dance?,” but I also delighted in their lighter moments throughout. I had no idea 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein could be so funny! The running joke involving the phrase “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera” never failed to make me laugh, even on its umpteenth iteration.
Despite the welcome humor, it’s not all light and fluffy (and as a result, probably best suited for kids over 10). A subplot about Tuptim, a Burmese woman sent as a gift to the king who is in love with another man, raises questions about human dignity and rebellion against those in authority. And there’s actually a surprisingly progressive message about human rights carried throughout the production, highlighted by the show-within-a-show, “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” Tuptim’s ballet interpretation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” That message makes the conclusion of the play – no spoilers, we promise! – all the more satisfying, and causes the whole show to feel refreshingly of-the-moment in a way I didn’t expect.
In the end, though, it’s all about a good night at the theater, and “The King and I” delivers that in spades. I spend the rest of the weekend with earworms from “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You” and “Hello, Young Lovers” spinning through my head, and I wasn’t even mad. Such a lovely performance is something I want to relive over and over again.
But since this beautiful staged version is only at the Lyric Opera through May 22, I guess the next time I’ll have to settle for the movie instead.