A Royal welcome to Victoria for The King and I

ON STAGE

What: The King and I
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Jan. 2-6
Tickets: $113.50 through rmts.bc.ca, by phone at 250-386-6121, or in person at the Royal McPherson box office

Smaller cities, especially those well-removed from major theatre markets such as Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, often attract touring versions of big-name productions — that is, productions that look good, but ultimately lack the heft of the original.

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It comes down to budget, or lack thereof. The Broadway production of The King and I that is headed to the Royal Theatre for seven performances next week is not that kind of production.

Victoria might be considered an off-the-map destination for a production of this kind, but the quality of this version — based on the Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center original — is evident.

Not only is it considered the largest Broadway show in Royal Theatre history, it has several direct ties to the original, including crew members who worked on the King and I’s Tony Award-winning national tour in 2016.

“I’m so honoured to be a part of this production, to be taking it across North America to people who don’t get to go to New York and experience these productions,” said Pedro Ka’awaloa, who plays The King of Siam. “The sets, the costumes, the talent, the voices — to be able to bring these to people all across the country, it’s absolutely incredible.”

The true coup for producers, however, was landing those original crew members: music supervisor Ted Sperling, scenic designer Michael Yeargan, lighting designer Donald Holder, sound designer Scott Lehrer and director Shelly Butler, who is working with personal notes and dramaturgy from original director Bartlett Sher.

A pair of Tony Award winners for their work in the 2015 installment — costume designer Catherine Zuber and choreographer Christopher Gattelli, who has based his work on the original steps by Jerome Robbins — are also directly involved.

“We’ve been very diligent — everyone, across the board — to maintaining what it was when it first opened in the Lincoln Center,” Ka’awaloa said. “So many of the elements, they are all there. We’ve taken effort to provide as much of what it was and making it honorific to the original and real to us. People are going to be stunned.”

With a cast and orchestra nearing 50 people, in addition to 10 local wardrobe personnel for each show — above and beyond the touring crew’s own wardrobe staff — everything about the musical seems super-sized. Which is ironic, Ka’awaloa said, given the small scale of the love story at the centre of it all.

“In applying a modern lens to the show, it shows us that plays like this are timeless,” he said. “Even though this show was written over 60 years ago, you can still find things to talk about in the modern world.

“It’s a testament to how progressive [co-writers] Rodgers and Hammerstein were.”

The musical is based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel about the life of Anna Leonowens, a widowed Briton tasked with teaching the royal children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. Rodgers and Hammerstein adjusted the story, making the stage version more of a fictionalized take on Mongkut, who was first played by Yul Brynner in 1951.

The role of the king become synonymous with the Russian actor, whose memorable film achievements in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Westworld (1974) were deemed secondary to those of Mongkut.

Brynner’s most famous role won him both a Tony Award in 1952 and an Academy Award in 1956, making him one of only 10 actors in history to have won top honours for stage and screen versions of the same character. In the end, he played the role of King Mongkut a record 4,625 times on stage, something the Hawaii-born, New York-based Ka’awaloa took to heart after accepting the role this year.

Ka’awaloa has tackled similar stage roles in the past, from the Beast (in a production of Beauty and the Beast) to Jesus (Jesus Christ Superstar) and Captain Hook (Peter Pan), but the character made famous by Brynner was in a different league.

He managed to create a version of it that paid respect to the past, but also created something new. “I want to pay homage, because I’m stepping into the shoes of such an incredible man and performer. But I’ve also got to find my own way. And to find the honesty of who the King is.”

Ka’awaloa (who appears with Angela Baumgardner in the role of Anna Leonowens in the current production) was exposed to the movie version of The King and I when he was young. Three years ago, he served as the conductor of a stage production of The King and I by the Kilauea Drama and Entertainment Network in Hawaii. “That really gave me an appreciation for the musical. I’ve drawn a lot on that today.”

The tour coming to Victoria made recent stops in Tennessee and Alabama before going dark Dec. 23. Everyone is set to be back at work Thursday, the kickoff to a four-day run through California that leads into the final stages of a tour that winds down May 5, following stops in Oregon, California, Idaho, Maryland, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ontario.

The cast and crew arrives in Victoria on New Year’s Eve, though Ka’awaloa said he isn’t exactly sure when they touch down on Vancouver Island. “We don’t even know what day it is until we get our daily calls [to the set],” he said, with a weary laugh. “Then it’s like: ‘Oh, right, it’s Wednesday.’ ”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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