Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Etc., etc., etc.: Siam Mightily Impressed, If Not Royally Smitten, by Lyric's 'The King and I' -- Chicago Theater / Opera Review

Theater / Opera Review

The King and I 
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru May 22

I have attended more than enough "musicals" and "operas" to understand the connotative differences. 

At least in the U.S. and U.K., musicals are almost always performed in English, yet while operas can be if written as such, they're usually sung in Italian, German, French, Russian or the tongue employed by the composer and librettist. (At domestic opera houses, English supertitles are routinely projected, so one can follow the storyline.)

And though I can't really explain it well, musical and especially vocal styles differ among the two idioms, with "opera voices" suggesting a more grandiose delivery not often employed in Broadway musicals. 

Opera is also defined by being entirely sung, without any spoken dialogue, but even though a show like Evita has virtually no speaking, it is considered a musical, not opera. 

I have only been going to Chicago's esteemed Lyric Opera within the 21st century--a few years as a subscriber but mostly ad hoc--but recall just two "musicals" being done within its 8-title season: Sweeney Todd and Show Boat

I found both of these excellent, and don't recall overt audience grumblings, but with many more Chicagoland venues and troupes staging musicals than operas, it's possible some in the Lyric's large subscriber base expressed a strong preference for more traditional operas as part of their season packages. 

For beginning in 2013 with Oklahoma, the Lyric has been presenting masterworks of the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon--but as a 9th show, outside standard subscription packages.

As someone who appreciates opera--and is regularly wowed by the Lyric's production values--but loves musicals, I have found Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and Carousel to be absolute joys. 

Yet while I found Lyric's take on The King and I, replicating a 2014 production by the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, to be excellent on many levels--musically, vocally, visually, etc., etc. (the et ceteras are a spoken motif in the show)--the tenor of my appreciation is more akin with most operas I am glad to see, rather than magnificent musicals I wholeheartedly embrace.

This isn't because it was performed operatically; stylistically it felt like a musical, with vocal calibers and production values largely on par with Broadway, where a revival continues to run.

And as with all of the Lyric's productions, whether operas or musicals, it is a lavish affair with beautiful scenery (by set designer Jean-Marc Puissant) and vivid, resplendent costumes by Sue Blaine.

But with great respect for the genius of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, whose works I  have largely come to love--and admire for unsuspected but substantial social activism--even more in recent years, The King and I is not quite on par with The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, Carousel or South Pacific (the latter not yet done at Lyric).

Though it has a lovely score with a great overture and several nice songs, only three tunes are really the type of hummable classics one associates with Rodgers and Hammerstein: "I Whistle a Happy Tune" (near the beginning), "Shall We Dance?" (near the end) and especially "Getting to Know You."

First brought to Broadway in 1951, written specifically as a starring vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, The King and I musicalizes the 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam, which semi-fictionalizes a true story. In 1862, a British widow named Anna Leonowens went to Siam (now Thailand) with her young son, Louis, at the invitation of King Mongkut, who wanted her to teach his numerous children and wives the English language and British customs.

At the Lyric, Anna--originated by Lawrence on Broadway and played by Deborah Kerr in the 1956 movie--is well-performed by Broadway vet (and Northwestern grad) Kate Baldwin.

Quite iconically, the King of Siam was initially played on Broadway, in the movie and on subsequent tours/revivals by Yul Brynner. Here he is embodied by Paolo Montalban, who is generally likable in embodying the haughty, stubborn and slowly progressive monarch, and who does a particularly nice job on the solo "A Puzzlement."

Yet while there is nothing categorically wrong with Montalban's performance, or the possibility of a older woman being smitten by a younger man, not only does this King seem considerably younger than Anna here, or as others--most notably Brynner--have played him (thereby depleting the role of some gravitas), but even on the main floor of the Civic Opera House and aided by binoculars, I never discerned much chemistry between the two leads.

This certainly isn't reason enough to avoid this King and I--and I definitely enjoyed it much more than not.

It's also possible that following a full work day and a 90-minute drive into the city, there were other factors that made the 3-hour performance feel laborious at times. Though the show within the show of "The Small House of Uncle Thomas"--a ballet led by the exquisite Ali Ewoldt as Tuptim--is largely delightful, it started to run on a bit too long.

There are several other fine performances--by Alan Ariano (The Kralahome), Rona Figueroa (Lady Thiang), Sam Simahk (Lun Tha), Charlie Babbo (Anna's son Louis) and loads of other adorable kids--and many high-quality if not as overtly mirthful R&H songs: "My Lord and Master," "Hello, Young Lovers," "We Kiss in a Shadow," "I Have Dreamed," etc., etc.

But as corroborated by database-enhanced recollections of two prior viewings of The King and I onstage--on a 2004 tour starring Sandy Duncan and, a bit ironically given my spiel about opera above, in Danish in Copenhagen in 2008, which wasn't abetted by subtitles, leaving me largely to appreciate the melodies and basic outline--I regard this as a quite good musical, with some wonderful songs and lasting resonance in its messaging, but not quite a monumental one.

I would end by saying that, regardless of this not quite providing the delight of Lyric's past Rodgers & Hammerstein renditions, it would in no way dissuade me from seeing South Pacific next year, but supposedly due to audience survey feedback, that storied title has been shelved for 2017 in favor of Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady.

But, assuming I'm able, I'll definitely be there for the Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle musical cage match, and would enthusiastically vote for the Lyric bringing other "musical" titles--Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, etc., etc.--to its opera stage.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals at Lyric have seemed to be well-attended and fervently-applauded, substantiating my thought that these opera house "musical" productions are about as finely-crafted as any anywhere.

So especially if you love The King and I, perhaps even more than me, it'd be a royal shame if you miss this if merely for all the sumptuous resplendence, the choreography (by Penny Hickey), the score played by the Lyric's wondrous full orchestra conducted by David Chase., the performances...

Etc., etc., etc.

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