The fabulous smoky edges of classical music

What: “The King and I”
Where: Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
When: Through May 22
Phone: 312-332-2244

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

I heard some splendid music over the weekend at two very different venues. Neither event could be considered fully within the mainstream of classical music, and some of it wasn’t classical at all. But it was an occasion to take in the fabulous smoky penumbra of what we call classical music. “The King and I” consists primarily of show music, but there were marvelous moments of music sparkling to classically attuned ears, notably the Act II ballet. Similarly, the Fulcrum Point New Music Project concert in Hyde Park blurred the edges between classical, jazz, and other genres to wonderful effect.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” marks the fourth consecutive year that Lyric Opera of Chicago has offered an American musical after the conclusion of its opera season. This 1951 work is based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam” by Margaret Landon which is turn is based on the memoirs of an Anglo-Indian woman who actually worked for the King of Siam beginning in the 1860s.

The story is a charming one, with many American references, including the King’s interest in Abraham Lincoln and Anna’s concern with the injustices of slavery prompted by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (which, oddly enough, since the characters are learning and reading English directly, is rendered as “The Little House of Uncle Thomas,” presumably for exotic effect but which exudes more than a whiff of condescension).

The plot is also unusual by musical theater or even operatic standards. While there are the customary two couples, neither experience any true or complete romantic satisfaction.

Despite their East-versus-West differences, the King and Anna are very much alike. Both are educated, independent, strong, and candid. What comes between them is the King’s view of the politics of his own situation. He cannot institute wholesale change without upsetting centuries of deeply held cultural beliefs in his country, which could lead to his downfall and set back progress. In spite of her lack of education and worldliness, Lady Thiang, one of the King’s wives and mother of the crown prince, recognizes the King’s beneficial impact on the country. She explains this to Anna in, for my money the loveliest song in the work, “Something Wonderful,” even while acknowledging the King’s failings. Anna nonetheless shames the King when he is ready to punish the slave Tuptim. The King suffers from this humiliation and eventually dies. Anna wins this moral battle in the sense that the King’s son then begins his reign with progressive change, but at the cost of losing the man she has come to deeply respect and love.

It’s interesting that the King and Anna’s love is impossible, yet we are moved by how much they learn from each other and how rich and transforming their platonic relationship becomes.

The secondary couple in “The King and I” don’t provide the comic relief typical in musicals. In fact, their story is a knot of desperate frustrations. Tuptim and Lun Tha, a slave and the man who loves her, can only meet in secret with Anna as their chaperone. Their unconsummated love comes to a tragic end when Lun Tha is killed while planning the couple’s escape.

Yet Tuptim’s defiance yields one the musical’s most exciting scenes. The ballet “The Little House of Uncle Thomas” has the work’s most intriguing and imaginative music. And in Lyric’s production, choreographed by Peggy Hickey, the extended dance is engrossing, beautiful, and the best part of the evening.

The singing is solid, the costumes colorful, and the sets are varied and pretty. “Shall We Dance” is done to the backdrop of a romantic sky full of glittering stars while confetti on the floor which had earlier fallen from the rafters swirls again as Anna’s huge hoop skirt skims across the stage.

Paolo Montalban and Kate Baldwin star in the title roles and both become more and more interesting as the show progresses. Ali Ewoldt is marvelous as Tuptim and Rona Figueroa’s Lady Thiang is both wise and amusing. David Chase conducts the contract orchestra and stage director Lee Blakeley generally keeps things moving at a good pace, and although several cuts were made, it would not have hurt to excise a bit more. (With one intermission, the show runs three hours.)

Last but not least, Lyric has cast a passel of adorable children who fill the stage with warmth and smiles.

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Friday night’s Fulcrum Point New Music Project concert entitled “The Black Composer Speaks!” took place upstairs at The Promontory and it gathered a large crowd.

Jeffrey Mumford’s “becoming…” was a world premiere featuring Winston Choi as piano soloist. It was described as the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting, a kind of sonic pointillism. It lived up to this description and was given a committed and intense performance by Choi, for whom the work was written. The supporting nine-piece ensemble, conducted by Fulcrum Point artistic director Stephen Burns, was edgy and full of sparkling bits of color and accents.

Jessie Montgomery’s “Voodoo Dolls,” written for a Rhode Island dance company, was engaging and frisky. The five players (string quartet plus bass) gave an animated performance of music that is a fusion of classical, jazz, blue grass, and other genres, expertly knitted together in splendid fashion.

“In Our Own House” by Alvin Singleton, for horn, trumpet, soprano sax and piano, was a spirited conversation between classical and jazz with the sound of a sassy jam.

The Kahil El’ Zabar Quartet performed two works by El’ Zabar, who led the group as well as playing percussion and offering soulful singing. His music might be described as Afro-centric free jazz and his “Open My Eyes to the Light of Understanding” was particularly attractive. John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme” was hypnotic.

The concert closed with members of Fulcrum Point joining the quartet with El’ Zabar conducting his own “Let it Be Free.” He conducted the music, which was tender, sweet and smoldering, as if dancing.