"The King and I" mixes lively dance, lush costumes, modern themes
Donna Isbell Walker, [email protected] 3:27 p.m. ET Aug. 15, 2017 | Updated 3:36 p.m. ET Aug. 15, 2017
The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical “The King and I” has been around for more than 65 years. In fact, when “The King and I” made its Broadway debut, it had only been a few years since the country it depicts, Thailand, was officially known as Siam.
And its story of King Mongkut, the Siamese ruler who hires an English governess to teach his children, may seem quaint several decades later. But there are some surprising parallels between the 19th-century world that the musical depicts and 21st-century America.
At least that’s how Jose Llana, who stars as the titular king in the Broadway production that opens at the Peace Center Aug. 22, sees it.
“There’s a line written in 1951 that the king says, ‘Sometimes I want to build a fence around Siam,’” Llana said in a recent phone interview. “You have a story about a world leader who has to make a choice between building a wall or extending a hand of friendship and getting to know somebody. So I think if people come see our show and go home and talk to their kids about what ‘The King and I’ is about, if at the very basic level they say, ‘Well, “The King and I” is about two people from different countries who feared each other initially but found out by the end of the show they could be really good friends,’ then that’s a powerful message for anyone to take home.”
Llana, who’s 41, got his start on Broadway with a role as the young Lun Tha in the 1996 production of “The King and I.” In those days, actor Lou Diamond Phillips played King Mongkut.
Phillips, whose film career includes roles in “La Bamba” and “Courage Under Fire,” was “an incredible mentor and friend” to Llana in those days.
Perhaps the best-known interpretation of King Mongkut was Yul Brynner’s Oscar-winning portrayal in the 1956 film.
But Llana didn’t want to base his performance on any previous actor’s interpretation of the character. In fact, Llana said he and director Bartlett Sher approached the script as something brand new.
“What I’ve found out is that, all the different people who’ve played the king and all the ladies who’ve played Anna, is that the strength of the writing comes through,” Llana said. “And I think you can see that by the different kinds of kings that have played the part.
"The writing is still just as strong. And I think the same way that every production is relevant in every decade that the story is told in, so a lot of my inspiration comes from the fact that Bart Sher and I are both political junkies, we’re news junkies. … It’s been really interesting for me, as daily news breaks from the White House, that I get to go to the theater every night and play a world leader who is trying to solve the problems that are still rearing their heads today.”
“The King and I” is a perennial favorite, thanks in part to its sumptuous set design and costumes, this production kicks it up a notch, beyond the grandeur that fans might expect, Llana said.
Director Sher, along with costume designer Catherine Zuber and set designer Michael Yeargan, the threesome that Llana calls “the Dream Team,” get the credit for the luxurious new look.
“I think the three of them have crafted a world of Siam that is not only beautiful, but a lot more bold, and in terms of its accuracy and the sense that they wanted to honor the Thai culture and the Siamese history. And I think when people come to the show, they’re going to be blown away by the sets, they’re going to be blown away by the costumes. … They’re Tony-winning costume designs,” Llana said.
Llana’s favorite number in the show is one of the most familiar, the lively set piece “Shall We Dance?”
“It’s the most iconic visual of the show, and it’s what people are waiting for, to see the king and Mrs. Anna in that big ball gown dancing around the stage. And every night that we do it, it’s a rush, and it makes me feel like I’m part of history when I’m doing that song. And my favorite line in the show is what he says right after that polka. When they finish the first dance, he says, ‘Come, we try again. This time, I’ll be better.’ And I think that says everything about who the king is. He’s a learned king, and he wants to learn more, and he wants to … be better, to try as hard as he can for his country and his children.”
YOU CAN GO
What: “The King and I”
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 22-24, 8 p.m. Aug. 25, 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 26, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 27
Where: Peace Center
How much: $25-$85
For more: www.peacecenter.org