Book and Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II; Music: Richard Rodgers. At: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr. Tickets: 312-827-5600 or LyricOpera.org; $29-$199. Runs through: May 22
If the Lyric Opera of Chicago's presentation of The King and I had bowed at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora, it's likely that critics and audiences would fall over themselves to offer endless superlatives. But since it's being staged at the cavernous Civic Opera House, this 2014 production of The King and I imported from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris comes off like it's lacking in some visual grandeur and vocal splendor.
Of course, director Lee Blakeley's King and I production debuted before the current Broadway revival of the same musical at Lincoln Center. Those who have seen that lavish Tony Award-winning staging might unfavorably find Paris set designer Jean-Marc Puissant's elegantly austere gold and silver-brushed panels and screens depicting 19th-century Siam ( now Thailand ) to be too restrained.
There's also the question of The King and I casting at the Lyric, which is unquestionably solid in its musical-theater bona fides. Tony nominee Kate Baldwin, as the school mistress Anna Leonowens, enjoyably spars with Paolo Montalban's handsome King of Siam throughout the show, and their Act II polka "Shall We Dance" sizzles with sexual tension.
Baldwin, in particular, sings rings around Gertrude Lawrence, the first Anna, as evidenced on the original 1951 Broadway cast recording. Yet one wishes Montalban was more vocally authoritative. Montalban doesn't quite escape the long shadow of the original King of Yul Brynner, whose shout-singing take on the song monologue "A Puzzlement" still remains emblematic.
One might have also wished for more weighty legit voices in the supporting cast, especially since the Lyric's previous productions of musicals by the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II featured such opera stars like Christine Brewer, Elizabeth Futral and Denyce Graves. A booming contralto would have been great for Lady Thiang's convincing number "Something Wonderful." Rona Figueroa is fine in the role, but more vocal heft would have been welcome.
Stronger voices come with the secondary tragic Burmese lovers Tuptim ( Ali Ewoldt ) and Lun Tha ( Sam Simahk ). They both shine in the duets "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "I Have Dreamed."
And there's no denying the high cuteness quotient that comes with the King's many royal children, as led by the confident Matthew Uzarraga as Crown Prince Chulalongkorn.
The Lyric's King and I also greatly benefits from designer Sue Blane's elaborate costumes and choreographer Peggy Hickey's fun work with the Act II "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet. It's also a pleasure to have the Lyric Opera Orchestra led by conductor David Chase to bring out the full aural colors of Rodgers' east-meet-west Broadway score.
What the Lyric offers with The King and I is perfectly respectable and often very pleasing. But it's understandable if you find yourself wishing for so much more.