The King & I & Me

A year after moving to Chicago, there are still shows on Broadway I wish I’d seen while I had the chance. Though I resolved my major miss in never getting to Hamilton, I still regret not seeing Fun Home (though I did see Hugh Jackman in a play at that same theater just before it took over), and everything I’ve heard about Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of The King & I has me wishing I’d been able to make it to that, too.

In fairness, I don’t think it opened until after I’d moved away, but still. One of my new goals with theater is to just go – I’d rather spend money on a show I don’t love but have seen it, than not have seen it at all. Because let’s be honest, a night at the theater is never a wasted night.

But I digress. When I heard the Lyric Opera was bringing a production of the Rogers & Hammerstein classic through Chicago, I started keeping an eye out for tickets. I wasn’t going to miss it this time around.

Paolo Montalban and Kate Baldwin in the Lyric’s production of The King & I

Whenever the first sentence of a Ben Brantley review includes the word “resplendent,” I pay attention. His description of the first scene alone and the ship that “glides towards the audience…worthy of every ‘oooh’ it elicits” hooked me. My affinity for all things R&H only bolstered my determination to see this one while it was in town.

Then it occurred to me: this is not a tour of the Broadway production. Instead, this happens to be a timely coincidence of the stage, as the Lyric is in the middle of a four year commitment to perform five R&H classics (Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel [seriously lovely], The King & I and next year, South Pacific, which I’m sure I’ll also see).

But no matter. It’s a musical of the golden age of musicals, and the Lyric spares no expense in their productions, so I went ahead with my ticket purchase, securing a seat via Hot Tix inside my budget and at the tail end of my staycation.

In the end, it was a solid purchase and a wonderful evening at the theater. Though not the resplendent live experience Ben Brantley enjoyed in New York, it was not without it’s moments of wonder. Top among them, the iconic whirl around the stage in “Shall We Dance?” which had my eyes welling with happy tears. One would have to make an effort to sink that scene; that’s the only way it could really go wrong.

But as much as that scene impressed me, it comes late in a show that otherwise never fully embraces its grandeur. I tend to agree with the Chicago Tribune review, that Paolo Montalban’s King (and the show overall) lacked gravitas and, while the cast of here was certainly massive (in one scene, I counted 30 people on stage), re-reading the New York Times review of that version and its gushing at the sheer scale of the thing, I can’t help but feel shortchanged by the Lyric production.

I suppose this could all be splitting hairs. Did I see a professionally-executed, impressively-performed piece of live theater? I sure did. Was it perfect? No, it wasn’t. We can’t all be Hamilton.

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