By Khalida Sarwari
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I,” regarded as a timeless classic about a governess hired as part of an effort to modernize Siam (now known as Thailand), has successfully made the jump over the ocean from Broadway to West End, and this month, the national tour stops in San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts.
Set in 1860s Bangkok, “King” tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist King, in an imperialistic world, brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children. It’s been said the musical offers a critique of racism, slavery and sexism.
The cast of the national tour is led by Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna Leonowens while the King of Siam is alternated between Darren Lee and Bay Area local Brian Rivera. Kelly is no stranger to the role, having played it at the St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre. While that helped in familiarizing her with the role, she still had to make some adjustments, she said.
“I did come at it with preconceived notions,” the actress said. “I love that (director Bartlett Sher) challenged me to think outside of the box.”
Kelly previously played Mary Poppins in the musical of the same name on London’s West End and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland” on Broadway. She said she tends to seek out strong female characters to portray on stage.
“I think fundamentally I want to be that kind of person and playing these roles makes me think I can, and hopefully I can encourage other people to do the same thing,” Kelly said.
Rivera is also familiar with his part; he was an understudy in the production’s Broadway run. A native of Sacramento, Rivera attended San Francisco State University and put in time at many theaters around the Bay Area, including Teatro Vision in San Jose. Now, San Jose audiences will have an opportunity to see him play the King on Feb. 20, 24 and 25 at the Center for Performing Arts.
“In creating the King for myself in my performance, I learned to dial up certain attributes I have similar in myself,” he said. “I’m curious, I love learning new things, I love traveling, I love learning about different cultures, different languages… Aside from curiosity, I can also be stubborn and headstrong.”
To prepare for his role, Rivera made the trek from his home in New York to Thailand to learn about his character’s history and life. He said he also read the memoirs of Anna Leonowens.
“The role is based off an actual king,” Rivera said. “He was a learned man. He spent his youth and early adulthood just studying, not just about Buddhism, but he was very curious about the world.”
Under the direction of Tony Award-winner Sher, “King” won four 2015 Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. Music direction is by Ted Sperling, sets by Michael Yeargan and choreography by Christopher Gattelli.
Considered one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s finest works, “King” boasts a score that features classics such as “Getting To Know You,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance,” “I Have Dreamed” and “Something Wonderful.”
The national tour is produced by the Lincoln Center Theater. “King” runs Feb. 20-25 at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $48-$128 at ticketmaster.com, 800-982-ARTS (2787) or the City National Civic Box Office, 150 W. San Carlos St., San Jose. For more information, visit http://broadwaysanjose.com/the-king-and-i.