Kate Baldwin is the best reason to see the Lyric Opera's grand staging of an uncomfortable classic.
In spite of what can only be seen as a cringe-inducingly exoticized depiction of the culture of Siam, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 musical remains much beloved and regularly produced. A new Broadway production won last year’s Tony Award for best revival and is going strong after more than a year; here in Chicago, Heidi Kettenring won the Jeff Award last year for her performance as British tutor Anna Leonowens in Marriott Theatre’s 2014 staging. Now comes the Lyric Opera’s take, with a budget to emphasize the pageantry in a show that’s not much more than a series of pageants.
Said pageants include, of course, the play-within-the-play “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” along with less set-apart set pieces like Anna’s introduction to the children of the King, or the reveal of the King’s wives in Western fashions for the visiting British. Aside from Sue Blane’s stunningly beautiful costumes, one wishes for a little more visual flair in director Lee Blakely’s production of a show that’s largely built upon visuals. Too often, set designer Jean-Marc Puissant seems to be de-emphasizing the massive height of the Civic Opera House proscenium rather than using it.
Still, the score contains some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best work (if not necessarily best self-contained songs), and the opportunity to hear it played live by a 37-piece orchestra is of course a rare treat. Paolo Montalban’s take on the King isn’t entirely convincing, too much petulant immaturity and not enough gravitas. But Kate Baldwin makes a delicious meal of her turn as Anna: intelligent, unconventional and beautifully sung, making the role seem tailor-made for her.
Lyric Opera of Chicago. Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Lee Blakely. With Kate Baldwin, Paolo Montalban. Running time: 2hrs 50mins; one intermission.