Timeless, timely elements combine in ‘King and I’ revival

Some beloved love stories don’t have happily-ever-after endings.

Think “Romeo and Juliet.” Or “Casablanca.”

Or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” in which two complex, worlds-apart individuals — the 19th-century king of Siam and the plucky British widow he hires to teach his many children — experience a meeting of minds, and souls, that can never be more than that.

“The King and I” has been an audience favorite since its 1951 Broadway debut, which marked the final bow for the legendary Gertrude Lawrence (who died a little more than a year after it opened) and Yul Brynner’s debut in what would become his signature role. Both won Tony Awards; Brynner also earned an Oscar for the 1956 movie adaptation.

But the current touring version of the Tony-winning 2015 revival — which opens an eight-performance run Wednesday at The Smith Center — demonstrates that “The King and I” is not only timeless but timely.

That’s due, in part, to the ability of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist/librettist Oscar Hammerstein “to put their fingers on some universals,” according to Ted Chapin, who heads the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization — and makes sure contemporary productions “maintain the integrity” of the team’s musical landmarks.

One secret of its success: “the way they told this sort of anti-love love story,” Chapin says, describing the conflict between the blustery monarch Mongkut (“a typical guy-guy: ‘My way or the highway, and since I’m the king of Siam no one’s ever going to question me’ ”) and teacher Anna Leonowens, who ultimately “helps him incredibly.”

For Jose Llanas, who plays the king, the musical “at its core is about people of different worlds who are fearful of each other, and dislike each other,” yet “find a way to find friendship.”

As for the prospect of anything more, that “forbidden love would ruin their country,” Llanas adds, noting the two are “not able to finally reach their dream.”

Anna and the king “have a really interesting relationship,” observes Heather Botts, who takes over the role of Anna during her last four weeks with the “King and I” tour. It’s “an unconventional relationship, but a beautiful one too.”

Yet this “King and I” focuses on more than the personal.

Director Bartlett Sher — who won a Tony for his 2008 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” — is “rather brilliant at finding parts of the story that are there but have not been given proper attention” in previous productions, according to Chapin.

“It was important” for Sher and the show’s creative team “to strip away any sugarcoating,” adds Botts. “They went back to the original script.”

As a result, this “King and I” has more political focus than the tours Brynner headlined for years, which “became ‘The Yul Brynner Show’ for a while,” says Llanas, noting that “a lot of political lines have been restored in the show.”

The current touring production addresses the king’s efforts “to study how the West thought,” Chapin comments, “to avoid being invaded by them.”

As a result, questions of leadership and power emerge throughout “The King and I,” along with “bridging all these cultural differences,” Botts adds.

But Sher insisted cast members set aside their modern attitudes, she notes.

“Whenever we’d want to play a scene a certain way,” to emphasize a more contemporary viewpoint, Sher would tell the actors, “ ‘We have to create the looking glass of 1860. We have to let the audience see it’s bad,’ ” she recalls. “That resonated with me.”

It also resonates with today’s audiences, Llanas maintains.

“In every decade the show is performed in, there’s some contemporary, current political strife” it addresses, he suggests.

“If we can tour a country that’s so divided, and do a show about two foreigners coming together and finding common ground,” Llanas adds, it proves “the show has stood the test of time. Its overall themes read to every generation it’s performed for.”

In the spotlight: ‘King and I’ stars Jose Llanas, Heather Botts

Jose Llanas plays King Mongkut of Siam in “The King and I.” This time around.

Llanas stars as the 19th-century monarch Mongkut in the national tour of the 2015 Tony-winning revival.

And it was inevitable — at least according to actor Lou Diamond Phillips, who played the king in the 1996 Broadway revival that marked Llanas’ professional debut.

In that production, Llanas played Lun Tha, a Burmese envoy who’s in love with Tuptim, a Burmese slave brought to Siam to be one of the king’s junior wives.

Phillips “always told me, ‘You have this part in your future,’ ” Llanas recalls.

Two decades later, “to go into the Broadway production in Lincoln Center, and then on tour,” represents the fulfillment of a dream, Llanas says.

Llanas has been with the current “King and I” tour for about 10 months and “almost all the company” has signed on for a second year, he notes.

But not Heather Botts, who’s leaving in a few weeks after more than a year with the show.

For most of that time, Botts was the standby for the leading role of Anna Leonowens, the British widow who comes to Siam to teach the king’s children — and winds up teaching him as well.

Botts had to be ready to go on at any time, although it could be “weeks before you go into a role.”

As a result, “you have to rely on your talent and you have to trust the work,” she says.

Now that’s she’s taken over as Anna, “there’s a lot of peace in my body,” she says. “I know I get to grow with Jose for the next four weeks” portraying a character who has “so much gumption. She seems so fearless.”

Although this “King and I” makes room for plenty of political content, Botts also values the “escapism” of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which enables performers — and audiences — to “fall into a world and not think about anything else.”

Contact Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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