LYRIC OPERA’S THE KING AND I: AN OPULENT BEAUTY AND THE NICE GUY

K and I0001At the heart of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musicals – Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and The King and I – is the tale of Beauty and the Beast.

Each Beauty – Laurey, Julie, Nellie, Maria, Anna – transforms the macho wild Beast in their life – helps their man (Curly, Billy, Emile, Captain von Trapp, and the King of Siam) – get in touch with a hitherto unknown softer side of themselves, through the mysterious experience of love. (Rodgers and Hammerstein cleverly reverse the object of the transformation in South Pacific, from the male to the female; Nellie comes to shed her “racist” notions.)

With The King and I, Rodgers and Hammerstein created their most ferocious beast of all, and, paralleling the fable, has the beast dying, heart-broken, as beauty weeps nearby.

Richard Rodgers explains how they found their “savage.”

At his audition, Yul Brynner “scowled in our direction and sat down on the stage tailor-fashion, then plunked one whacking chord on his guitar and began to howl in a strange language…He looked savage, he sounded savage, and there was no denying that he projected a feeling of controlled ferocity…Oscar and I looked at each other and nodded.”

They had found what they wanted: a howling, ferocious savage, their Beast, to put in a cage with their Beauty, the suave Noel Coward light comedienne, Gertrude Lawrence.

They knew they had a show to rival that of Gunther Gebel-Williams, the world-famous lion tamer for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

So they booked the St. James Theatre, one of Broadway’s largest for their 1951 opening.

Subsequent productions of The King and I have claimed that their Kings have had to deal with the shadow of Yul Brynner’s performance. What they mean, I think, is that they need to secure the services of an actor who can, not imitate Yul Brynner, but willingly embrace and embody the full savage nature of the King’s character.

It is not fashionable nowadays to portray savagery on the stage. Consequently, directors of The King and I look for other “interpretations” of the King.

The current production at Chicago’s Lyric opera directed by Lee Blakeley is a case in point. He wanted a “sensitive” king.

Perfect in almost every other way, the decision to present the King as a person not ferocious by nature, but as a man trapped in a horribly outdated social construct, struggling to find an excuse not to do the ferocious, savage things called for by the action of the play, diminishes the power of the musical’s central relationship.

Instead of angry scowls, Mr. Blakeley cast a King who grins.  Instead of a Beast who could eat Anna at any moment, Mr. Blakeley cast a pussy cat who might rub up against Anna at any moment. This King is mean, not by nature, as the authors envisioned him, but, it seems, merely by social necessity.  Unfortunately, Mr. Paolo Montalban plays Mr. Blakeley’s idea wonderfully.

On the other hand, Kate Baldwin’s Anna Leonowens couldn’t be better. In fact, she is the consummate Anna. Her name should be above the title, as was Gertrude Lawrence’s name for the original production.  A terrific actress and dynamic singer, Ms. Baldwin makes the challenging role of Anna look easy. Every solo has the audience agape with delight. She can proudly take her place next to all of the great Annas – from Gertrude Lawrence to Celeste Holm to Patricia Morrison (who introduced Anna to Chicago in 1954) to Deborah Kerr/Marni Nixon to Barbara Cook to Constance Towers to Angela Lansbury to Kelli O’Hara.

Ms. Baldwin’s performance, the soul-lifting music of Richard Rodgers, and rapturous pageantry are reasons enough to see this production of The King and I.

The supporting cast is first rate. Bewhiskered John Lister’s Captain Orton opens the show with his usual panache. Charlie Babbo plays young Louis with just the right mix of wide-eyed innocence and whining brattiness. His Siamese counterpart Prince Chulalongkorn is played wonderfully by Matthew Uzarraga with youthful zest and ferocity. The Prince’s mother, Lady Thiang (Rona Figuera) upholds her wifely share of the stage with poise and elegant dignity. Her “Simply Wonderful” knocks out an audience already reeling from beautiful singing. Ali Ewoldt is spot on perfect as Tuptim. Her “My Lord and Master” is a high point of the production, as are her duets with Lun Tha, sung and acted to a tee by the wonderful Sam Simahk. I doubt “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” have ever been sung better.

The resplendent scenery by  Jean-Marie Puissant, the dazzling costumes by  Sue Blane, and the glittering lighting by Rick Fisher set the stage for the high point of the musical’s spectacle, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. Designed to confront the King in the manner of Hamlet‘s famous Murder of Gonzago, the staging clearly identifies the King not only with Simon Legree, but also with the Egyptian Pharaoh subjugating the people of Israel. The crossing of the frozen water echoes the crossing of a frozen Red Sea. Dance, masks, properties and costumes are all imaginative and appropriate combinations of Bunraku, Kabuki, and Bollywood modern dance. Narrated beautifully by Ali Ewolt, the choreography is the most inventive and lissome seen at the Civic Opera House in some time. Principal dancer Lisa Gillespie is simply marvelous. Choreographer Peggy Hickey shines elsewhere in the production as well. The fan dance during “Getting to Know You” is the most delightful such dance since Sally Rand charmed her way through the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition.

Last spring David Chase conducted Rob Ashford’s historic reinterpretation of Carousel with gusto. His conducting of The King and I is appropriate to the pace of Lee Blakeley’s stage action.

A Beauty with a Beast is thrilling entertainment.

A Beauty without a Beast is simply a nice, but majestic, time.

Go to the Civic Opera House.

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