The Lyric Opera’s The King and I is a Stunning Masterpiece

The view of the Civic Opera House from the stage.
The view of the Civic Opera House from the stage.

A stubbornly courageous woman with feminist ideals clashes with the equally stubborn king of Siam, yet through their differences they fall in love :: the story of The King and I is a colorful story with catchy tunes that the Lyric Opera pulls off wondrously.

It’s the classic story told through music by Rogers and Hammerstein of Anna, the British schoolteacher, who moves to Siam with her young son to teach the King’s many children about western culture. A turbulent relationship develops between Anna and the King and, despite their many clashes, the two fall into a love that neither can admit.

Every year the Lyric Opera closes its season with a theatrical musical instead of an opera. It’s no secret which one I prefer, but after seeing a few plays this year my appreciation for theater is growing and I was curious how one of the best opera companies in the country would do a musical.

The curtain call at the King and I dress rehearsal.
The curtain call at the King and I dress rehearsal.

Just as I suspected, the Lyric knows how to put on a musical in a way unmatched by any other theater in Chicago. The costumes are amazingly beautiful — intensely colorful and sparkly, they create a visual masterpiece that continues to dazzle throughout the show.

The sets are just as spectacular, with creative transitions between scenes and ever-changing backgrounds that emphasize the singer(s) in a way that not only maintains the audience’s attention, but narrows in on the action like a camera’s close-up. In every stage production the set becomes a character and this one kept me guessing the entire performance.

The performers themselves are no exception. Kate Baldwin’s portrayal of the fierce Anna is spot-on, just like her voice. The subtle tenderness and hints of romance between her and the King (played by Paolo Montalban) are incredible, especially considering most of the audience can barely see their faces so their love has to be felt through their singing.

A behind-the-curtain look at some backdrops from The King and I.
Hints of scenery from The King and I hide backstage.

The true highlight is Ali Ewoldt’s portrayal of the heart-wrenching Tuptim. From her first moment on stage she steals the audience’s attention — and hearts, no doubt — with her stunning voice, and from then on I was anxious for her to sing again every time she appeared.

But it was the King’s children that were the biggest crowd-pleasers, constantly enticing laughter, ahhhs! and the most applause. Only a dozen or so of the King’s 60+ children are portrayed on stage, with some performers as young as 5 years old. Their surprising entrance grabs the audience’s attention (I won’t give away any spoilers; you’ll just have to see it) and they are guaranteed to tug at your heart-strings every time they’re on stage.

As a true opera fan, I was disappointed that the singers use microphones, but it helped make the talking parts in between songs audible and maintained consistently with the singing. Surprisingly, the orchestra played loud enough not to be dwarfed by the enhanced voices on stage — a nod to the amazing acoustics of the Civic Opera House.

The king's throne during a recent backstage tour of the Lyric Opera.
The king’s throne during a recent backstage tour of the Lyric Opera.

The performance is three hours long with one intermission. Time flies through the whole performance except for the play-within-a-play in Act 2 that drags on a little too long despite the intricate costumes and talented ballet dancers. The boredom is quickly redeemed as the famous Shall We Dance? scene follows shortly, when Anna and the King finally realize their unspoken love for each other — and the audience is sure to fall fully in love with them, too.

The Lyric Opera’s The King and I runs at the Civic Opera House until May 22, 2016. Tickets are available online here. Use promo code KINGINSIDER for 20% off any performance Monday-Friday.

An elephant puppet hanging backstage at the Civic Opera House.
Spoiler alert: an elephant makes an appearance at some point in The King and I.

Disclaimer :: I was invited to the dress rehearsal of The King and I as a guest of the Lyric Opera. However, I purchased my own tickets for a future performance and, as always, all opinions are my own.

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