The Fling of Siam

Retitle a classic?

Why not ... "The King and Gloria Steinem"? ... "The King and Betty Friedan"? ... "The King and Germaine Greer"?

"The King and Helen Reddy Singing 'I Am Woman Hear Me Roar' "?

Parallels to feminists are not hard to draw from the life of Anna Leonowens, whose memoirs of teaching the many wives and children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s -- and revealing the ways of "modern" Western civilization to the king's court -- inspired the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The King and I," opening this weekend for an extended run at the Summerlin Library Performing Arts Center.

"She was definitely a feminist," says Lysander Abadia, aka the King in the staging by Signature Productions. "After the king died, she went to Russia to become a journalist, became one of the first field correspondents. In my research, it wasn't that she was doing it for any political agenda or just to prove a point -- she just was. In that way she was a very inspiring feminist."

Her portrayer calls her a compassionate advocate for introducing progressive values into the feudal 19th-century society, where women could be brutally abused, including the punishment of the king's wives.

"I don't think she thinks of herself as a feminist, but she sees the world as someplace where everybody should have equal opportunity," says Melissa Riezler, who plays Anna. "It's not until she gets to Siam and sees how women are treated does she think of herself as a feminist. And even then, it's more anti-slavery."

The 1951 musical, which transformed this historical chapter into lasting entertainment and defined the career of the late Yul Brynner, was the sixth Rodgers-Hammerstein collaboration, and it contains a king's ransom of memorable tunes including "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You," "Hello Young Lovers" and most notably, the euphoric "Shall We Dance" in which Anna and the king -- if you'll excuse the contemporary vernacular -- hit the dance floor.

"I really anticipate that number," Riezler says. "In the show, it's hinted at that the king and Anna have fallen in love in a sense, and that shows the fun between them, because there's a lot of serious moments and this is one number where we can dance and have a great time."

Adds her dance partner: "I'm really looking forward to that one, because we're doing it very traditionally with a giant polka. It's a gift to the audience, and we have the same expectation they do. When it comes to that moment, I have to pinch myself every time, like, 'Oh my God, I'm actually doing this number!' "

Authenticity was paramount to director Leslie Fotheringham, who took extra steps to ensure it. "We brought in a dialect coach, and we wanted to make sure the protocols of the royal court were accurate," Fotheringham says. "Because Siam is now Thailand, we threw in some Thai language. Voices are more contemporary now, not as heavy, so we're using more contemporary sounds. But it's still 'The King and I.' People expect it to be a certain way, and I don't want to disappoint them."

Likening Mongkut to Shakespearean figures such as Hamlet and King Lear, Abadia says it's a role every actor desires, especially given the character's dramatic arc, etching the portrait of a complex and conflicted king that lends him emotional heft. "He starts out as very hard and stubborn and set in his ways, but with his relationship with Anna, he starts to change his view of life and how things should be," Abadia says of the king. "It culminates with his death, and he realizes he has to open up to others in life, especially Anna. All he wants is to be a better person and better king for his country."

One more thing: the hair. Brynner's shaved pate as the royal personage became a signature of the show, as much an imprint as the colorful costumes and sweeping score. So ... got the razor handy?

"The real king had hair," Abadia -- who will retain his locks -- points out. "When Yul Brynner originated the role on Broadway, he had hair as well. It was only in the movie that his head was shaved. Even Chow Yun-Fat, when he played the role in 'Anna and the King' (the 1999 nonmusical film co-starring Jodie Foster as Anna), he had hair. So we decided to take Chow Yun-Fat's haircut and try that."

His director also insisted that her monarch sport tresses. "The last time (the show) was done on Broadway was with Lou Diamond Phillips, and he was not bald," Fotheringham says. "That was one place I didn't feel I needed to hold onto. If I happen to have a bald king, great. But I'm happy with who we've got. He's a little younger than I would've liked, but I think the audience will forgive that as soon as they see how strong he is in the role."

Why not a bold, bald Anna? Now that's feminism.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.