Arts & Culture

Getting to know a more culturally accurate ‘King and I’ at MTW

The gleaming bald pate that Yul Brynner gave to the King of Siam in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic “The King and I” may be iconic, but it’s historically inaccurate and won’t be seen in the revival that opens Wednesday for Music Theatre of Wichita.

“Hair represents power in the Thai (formerly Siamese) culture, so the bald look is culturally incorrect,” said Thom Sesma, a Broadway veteran who will be playing the role in Wichita.

“I was perfectly willing to shave my head, but I wouldn’t look very good,” Sesma said with a laugh. “My head doesn’t have the right ‘architecture’ for it. Fortunately, it was a choice I didn’t have to make.”

Added fellow cast member Alan Ariano, another Broadway veteran who has played the king previously but is cast as the king’s right-hand-man, the Kralahome, this time: “The reason Yul Brynner played the king bald is that he was bald himself. He just shaved off the fringe to clean it up. His performance made the look iconic, and it became what people expected.”

The king’s appearance is just one of the unexpected things audiences will notice about this production – the fifth for MTW in the past four decades. Perhaps the most striking is that all the key Siamese characters are played by Asian actors rather than white actors in heavy ethnic makeup, as was common over the past 50 years.

“We made a concerted effort for ethnically correct casting because there is now a wonderful talent pool to take advantage of,” said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director for MTW, who has himself produced the show twice before, in 2002 and 1991, when he cast Tony winner, Oklahoma native and very blonde Kristin Chenoweth as Tuptim, the beautiful servant. “We can now treat the show with more cultural richness.”

Guest director Mark Madama, theater professor at the University of Michigan who is back for his 41st MTW show, said he’s working with members of the local Buddhist community to ensure that prayerful hand gestures and other nuances are authentic.

“We just want to tell the story honestly. We need to be sure we aren’t just precious,” Madama said. “It’s a beloved classic, but we are beyond the days when characters could just stand and sing lovely melodies. Audiences today expect us to kick it up a notch without offending the original.”

“The King and I,” which opens Wednesday and runs seven performances through Sunday, is the story of a strong-willed English governess and teacher who is hired to teach the children and wives of the King of Siam about Western culture in the 1860s so his country can become a player on the world stage. The king fears that if he were to be considered a barbarian, his country would be taken over by supposed “civilized” countries and made a protectorate. Anna and the king constantly butt heads over issues of culture, politics, manners and, particularly, sexism, but they form a loving bond that makes the story endearing and enduring.

The story is adapted from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens about her five years in the court of King Mongkut, but the musical is, of course, more fanciful and romantic than strictly autobiographical, with such glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein standards as “Getting to Know You,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Hello, Young Lovers” and the show-stopping “Shall We Dance?”

The original won Tony Awards for best musical, best score, best actress (Gertrude Lawrence) and featured actor (Yul Brynner) and ran for three years on Broadway. It was revived in 1977, 1985 and 1996, winning even more Tonys. And Brynner, who won the Oscar as best actor for the 1956 movie version, took the musical on tour for four years, racking up a lifetime total of 4,625 performances as the king.

Playing Anna opposite Sesma’s king is frequent guest star Kim Huber, a Los Angeles-based veteran last seen here two years ago in “Finian’s Rainbow.”

“Anna is one of those roles that you just have to do when you mature into it. My parents were big Rodgers and Hammerstein fans, and I grew up listing to recordings of ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘South Pacific,’ ‘Carousel’ and ‘The King and I.’ They are touchstones for me, but the roles never came to me – until now,” said Huber, whose lengthy MTW resume includes “My Fair Lady,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Paint Your Wagon” (her first pairing with co-star Sesma in 1992).

“Anna is not afraid to speak her mind when she thinks she’s right. And she thinks she’s right a lot. I can identify with that. Except for the (British) accent, we are very much kindred spirits,” Huber said, adding with a laugh that “I also have a lot of experience waltzing around in a golden gown” – a reference to her Broadway role as Belle in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.”

For his part, Sesma sees the king as “strong, spoiled, powerful – just awesome.” He’s an autocratic leader who secretly realizes he needs help to make changes but is hesitant to ask for it because he is afraid of appearing weak.

“That’s where I identify with the king the most. I have trouble asking for help in my personal life. I like that he is ultimately willing to ask for it,” Sesma said. “Without an obstacle to overcome, you are just playing attitude.”

Tami Swartz plays Lady Thiang, the king’s chief wife, a role she has played here before.

“I have permission to play her stronger this time. I look at her as proof of the old adage that ‘Behind every great man is a strong woman.’ In my thinking, it just might be that it was Lady Thiang’s idea to bring Anna to Siam to teach the king’s children – and the king himself,” said Swartz, an operatic soprano who has performed “Madama Butterfly,” “Gilda” and “Musetta,” among others.

“That’s logical because she was also thinking of her son, who would become king, and the future he would face if they didn’t understand Western ways. In 1862, countries like Siam were given the choice to become a trading partner or be subjugated,” Swartz said.

Added Ariano: “We are both playing stronger because there is a hint that Lady Thiang and the Kralahome got together to find Anna. He seems traditional in being stoic, mean and gruff. But he has a heart and realizes Anna can help the king with things he doesn’t understand.”

Playing the star-crossed young lovers whose forbidden romance is told in the hauntingly lovely “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” are New Yorkers Kay Trinidad as Tuptim and Karl Josef Co as Lun Tha. Both are making their MTW debuts.

Tuptim is a beautiful servant who is a present to the King of Siam from the neighboring King of Burma, and Lun Tha is a Burmese scholar who falls in love with her while escorting her to Siam.

“Tuptim is very young and very courageous. She dares to present a play about slavery (based on ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’) to the king to open his eyes about her own unhappy situation,” Trinidad said. “Her love story helps me find the courage of the character.”

Added Co: “Lun Tha is a romantic. He is head over heels for Tuptim. She is his whole world. There is so much hope in him. That’s what I identify with. But the key is not to play the ‘pretty’ because of the music but to play the ‘passion.’”

Choreographer Peggy Hickey will be working with the largest cast of the summer: 91, including 40 children ages 5 to 15 who play the king’s offspring in the stirring “March of the Royal Siamese Children.”

“This time, we will be giving a little more muscularity to the movements without losing the historical and cultural setting,” said Hickey, who also choreographed the 2002 production for MTW. “The setting is Thai, but we are incorporating elements from China, Japan and India for a look at a lot of Asian culture.”

And music director Thomas W. Douglas is conducting the largest orchestra of the summer: 26 pieces.

“The music is brilliantly written. It’s so familiar and classic that all we need to do is just play it.”