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Handsome, trim, athletic, charismatic five-foot, nine-inch movie, television, and stage star Lou Diamond Phillips says it is good to be the king... again. Phillips, who earned a Tony Award® nomination for his larger-than-life performance in the 1996 Broadway Revival of The King and I, will reprise the role of the imperious but good-hearted King of Siam in the gala North Carolina Theatre production of this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which opens July 10th and runs through July 18th at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Phillips is the biggest star to grace an NCT production to date.
Unlike many of his Hollywood and Broadway contemporaries, Phillips likes to meet and greet his fans, especially the younger generation of his admirers. So, NCT has scheduled a special Student-Preview-Night performance of The King and I at 8 p.m. tonight. Students and teachers with valid ID can buy tickets for just $10 each and enjoy a post-show appearance and autograph session by Phillips.
NCT's gala production of this classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, directed by Casey Hushion and choreographed by Tito Hernandez, will officially open Saturday and run through July 18th. NCT resident musical director McCrae Hardy will once again perform double duty as the show's conductor, and Phillips' co-stars will include Patty Goble (Anna), Frederick B. Owens (The Kralahome), and Sandia Ang (Lady Thiang).
"I saw the film version of The King and I when I was a child," says Casey Hushion, "and it made a strong impression on me."
She adds, "What I am attracted to about this particular musical is the richness and complexity of the themes, plot, and characters. The show has a depth that many musicals lack and has a message that becomes only more resonant, both politically and socially, as time goes on."
Hushion also relishes the opportunity to collaborate with the still boyishly handsome 42-year-old star of La Bamba (1987), Stand And Deliver (1988), Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns II (1990). She claims, "[T]he opportunity to work with an actor of the caliber of Lou Diamond Phillips is a gift. He is a truly fine actor and an incredible example of professionalism, kindness, and class. He has a respect and a passion for the show and for theater in itself that is inspiring. He brings humor, sexuality, and a new charisma to the role that drives the entire production."
Based on Anna and the King of Siam, a 1944 historical novel by Margaret Landon, The King and I made its Broadway debut on March 29, 1951 at the St. James Theatre, under the direction of John Van Druten and legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins. It ran for 1,246 performances and closed on March 20, 1954. The King and I, with melodies by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, II, won five 1952 Tony Awards, including the Best Musical, Best Actor (Yul Brynner as the King), and Best Actress (Gertrude Lawrence as English governess Anna Leonowens).
King Mongkut of Siam became Yul Brynner's signature role, and Gertrude Lawrence continued to play Anna until three weeks before her death. In the Academy Award®-winning 1956 motion-picture version of The King and I, directed by Walter Lang, Brynner played the King opposite a new Anna, Deborah Kerr. He won a Best Actor Oscar, and she received a Best Actress nomination.
The 1996 Broadway Revival of The King and I won four 1996 Tony Awards, including the Tony for Best Revival of a Musical. Lou Diamond Phillips' NCT debut in The King and I is not only the first time he has played the King since he left Broadway, but his first stage appearance since that show.
Phillips says, "It's wonderful making movies, but there's nothing like the theater.… My experience on Broadway and doing this role was not only one of the highlights of my career, but also a highlight of my life."
Phillips won't shave his head, a la Yul Brynner, who (Phillips notes) was already balding when he assumed the role. (Phillips says he will have his long black hair cut "high and tight," long on top but trimmed close on the sides, more like the way the historical king wore his hair.) He also promises not to strike Brynner's famous fists-on-the-hips pose during the North Carolina Theatre production.
The King and I became a meal ticket for Yul Brynner, who once estimated that he had racked up 4,000 performances in the role. Phillips, who already has 500 performances to his credit, says he looks forward to performing live before an opening-night audience that will include his three daughters. "My daughters have seen me on film," he explains, "but they have never seen me on stage."
Phillips claims the Rodgers and Hammerstein script for The King and I "is truly an American classic." He says, "It is as much like Shakespeare as anything."
When he performed the role on Broadway, Phillips says, "[The King and I] was funnier, sexier, darker, and more politically resonant than I remember it being." He adds that this message musical's condemnation of sexism and misogyny are as timely today as it was in 1951 or 1862, for that matter.
Before he committed to the Broadway revival, Phillips first had to confront the ghost of Yul Brynner. He says he thought, "If Yul's done everything there is to be done [with the role], there's no point in me doing it." But as he reviewed videotape of Brynner's performance, Phillips saw things he would do differently, ways that he could make the role his own.
The challenge of reprising the role for NCT is considerable. "I had to get my voice back in shape not only to sing the role, but to project it," Phillips says as he lowers his voice to the recreate the King's deep bass tones.
The challenge of staging The King and I is also considerable. "The biggest challenge presented with a show this classic and familiar to audiences," director Casey Hushion claims, "is how to make it fresh, how to give an audience the experience of hearing and interpreting these words for the first time again, how to make characters that could become a cliché or a recreation of memorable past portrayals become real, human and surprisingly accessible to an audience. And that always begins with getting back to the truth and to the honesty in the circumstances with the actors."
There is considerable controversy over whether the source of The King and I, Margaret Landon's novel, is historically accurate. The real King Maha Mongkut (a.k.a. King Rama IV) was born on October 18, 1804 in Bangkok in the kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). He finally ascended his father's throne in 1851, and he opened his country to Western influence and initiated many internal reforms.
The 19th century's most famous English governess, Anna Harriette Leonowens (1834-1914), did not arrive in Bangkok until 1862. She taught the king's wives and children for five years; and Leonowens had already left Siam when King Mongkut contracted malaria and died in 1868 on his 64th birthday.
Anna Leonowens later wrote two books, The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870) and The Romance of the Harem (1872). Her exotic sojourn in Siam subsequently inspired Margaret Landon to write Anna and the King of Siam (1944), which provided the story for The King and I, the 1951 musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; four motion pictures (Anna and the King of Siam , The King and I , the animated version of The King and I , and Anna and the King ); and the 1972 TV series Anna and the King.
In preparing to play King Mongkut, Lou Diamond Phillips says, he first tries to "understand the humanity behind these people at this time and place." He adds, "First, I try to understand the mindset, then I layer on posture, mannerisms, voice.
Director Casey Hushion says The King and I is "a love story... woven into the historical context of British Imperialism in Asia. Thus," she adds, "it is also the story of a clash between cultures and the dynamics between Great Britain and 'oriental' peoples.
"The King of Siam (Lou Diamond Phillips) invites an English governess to come to his country and teach the children of his many wives about the modern world. It is 1862 in Siam when an English widow, Anna Leonowens (Patty Goble), and her young son, Louis (Tyler Mann), arrive at the Royal Palace in Bangkok. The King himself resists changing his traditional role as benevolent patriarchal dictator until the attractive and bold young governess wins his heart and his respect."
Hushion adds, "It is his son Prince Chulalongkorn (Eric Santiago), who will carry on the King's program of scientific modernization of Siam after the King's death in the final scene. The musical score includes such classics as 'Whistle a Happy Tune,' 'Getting to Know You,' and 'I Have Dreamed.'"
Lou Diamond Phillips, whom NCT producer William Jones brought to Raleigh to help the company achieve its goal of producing world-class theater in the capital of the Tar Heel State, says that the NCT production of The King and I will be bigger than the Broadway revival in at least one way: There will be 24 kids on stage in Raleigh compared to 12 in New York.
"When we did the Procession of the Royal Children [on June 28th]," Phillips says, "they just kept coming." He noted that the multiethnic mix of young actors especially appealed to him. (Film critic Leonard Maltin claims Phillips is "part Cherokee, part Hawaiian, part Chinese, part Spanish and part Scotch-Irish!" Phillips rocketed to stardom by playing ill-fated Mexican-American rock singer Ritchie Valens in La Bamba.)
Toward the conclusion of the NCT's June 29th press conference to promote The King and I, Phillips also noted, "Acting is an action verb. You don't sit around talking about it. You do it." And then he and director Casey Hushion left to resume rehearsals for what may be the North Carolina Theatre's biggest and best production to date.
Second Opinion: July 9th News & Observer previews by staff writer Orla Swift: http://www.newsobserver.com/lifestyles/story/1410452p-7533653c.html [inactive 8/04] and http://www.newsobserver.com/lifestyles/story/1410452p-7533699c.html [inactive 8/04].
The North Carolina Theatre presents The King and I Saturday, July 10, at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 11, at 2 and 7 p.m.; Tuesday-Friday, July 13-16, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, July 17, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 18, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $20-$60, except $10 July 9th student preview. (Note: There will be a special Student Preview Night performance at 8 p.m. July 9th. Students and teachers with valid ID can buy tickets for just $10 each and enjoy a post-show appearance by Phillips.) NCT Box Office: 919/831-6950. North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/. Lou Diamond Phillips: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001617/ and http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=56121. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=5067. Internet Movie Database (1946 Film Anna and the King of Siam): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038303/. Internet Movie Database (1956 Film The King and I): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049408/. The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization: http://www.rnh.com/theatre/index.html. The King and I: Fact or Fiction?: http://www.thaistudents.com/kingandi/ [inactive 7/04]. King Mongkut of Siam: The Prince Who Became a Monk: http://www.royalty.nu/Asia/Thailand/Mongkut.html [inactive 7/04]. Background to The King and I: http://www.dodger.com/king/background.htm.