Gilded scenery, an exquisitely sung classic American songbook score, parades of hoop skirts and exotic Eastern textiles, and an unconventional love story. What’s not to adore in Lyric Opera’s The King and I?
The draw, for me, was seeing one of the musical theatre stage’s brightest stars, Kate Baldwin, take on the iconic role of Anna Leonowens — the widowed English schoolteacher who arrives in Siam to bring Western values and customs to the culture, and along the way butts heads with the charismatic and equally strong-willed King of Siam (a fine, if somewhat under-powered Paolo Montalban).
Baldwin does not disappoint. Her vibrant, layered vocals ease around Rogers and Hammerstein’s score — which, to be fair, isn’t as rangy as most of the songwriting duo’s heroines given it was constructed around Gertrude Lawrence, a performer of great charisma but limited vocal prowess. But Baldwin finds layers and nuance in the score I’ve rarely heard. And she does stern, but sympathetic, so damn well. It’s an astonishing performance that serves as the spine for this new production, which originated in Paris in 2014.
So, I came for the Baldwin, but I also knew, this being Lyric’s fifth installment delivering classic American musicals in grande style, that it would look as pretty as it sounds. And indeed it does. Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenery redefines opulent, and Sue Blane’s costumes have a crispness complimented by color that serve as a feast for the eyes.
My biggest hangup with these kinds of productions at Lyric has always been the sound – the mixture of Broadway and opera singers has, in the past, created a confounding audio mix, with uneven and muffled amplification and dialogue being eaten up in the venue. I’m pleased to report this is not an issue here – mostly due to the majority of the cast being musical stage actors, which removes the odd mish-mosh of styles and allows these world-class performers to focus on simply telling the story.
Rounding out the cast, Ali Ewoldt stuns and breaks hearts with her soaring soprano and nuanced performance, and Sam Simahk lends her gorgeous tenor to two of the show’s most lovey ballads. Rona Figueroa breathes a vibrancy and drive into Lady Thiang, nailing her pleading and haunting “Something Wonderful.”
Oh, and did I mention the 50 piece orchestra. Yeah. That. Get your tail down to the Lyric.
“The King and I” plays through May 22 at the Lyric Opera. More info here >