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Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy (2)(1)Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelly in The King and I by Matthew Murphy

By Karel
Charles Karel Bouley

I’ve been thinking a lot about icons, iconic roles and what makes something iconic. Maybe it’s because I’m aging, watching things from my youth become “classics.” Mamma Mia recently came through Orange County at the Segerstrom Center For the Arts on its final tour and I couldn’t help but remember being at its opening at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End some 17 years ago with my late husband Andrew Howard. And as we danced throughout the show with the normally reserved Brits we knew this was a hit. But a classic? As I sat with the much more stoic OC crowd almost two decades later, still singing every song, I couldn’t help but be amazed.

So when I was asked by Benny Aguayo from Nederlander’s Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles if I wanted to talk to Jose Llana, who plays the new King in the classic The King And I I immediately thought of that 17 year old boy in 1979 sitting in the very Pantages theatre watching Yul Brynner in the role he had won an Oscar and two Tony’s for, that young gay kid being gobsmacked by live theatre, the costumes, the dancing, the magic.

And now, 37 years later (yes, I’m 54) the man in the lead was coming on my show, was going to be in my column. And it was as much a full circle event for him, as it was for me.

Karel Cast Interview with Jose Llana

“I started as the young lover in the show 20 years ago,” Jose Llana told me just hours before he was to open at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, CA. “So to have the lead role is something that is a dream fulfilled, it is a ‘bucket list’ kind of goal. Plus, it’s such an iconic role, one that every time it is revived seems to gain an entirely new audience, yet with a universal message.”

The message of the play is not lost on Llana or myself in the time of Trump’s ascension to power. The play follows the exploits of the King of Siam and his fight to modernize his country, but not from his point of view.

Jose Llana as The King in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy (2)

Jose Llana by Matthew Murphy in The King and I at the Pantages Hollywood

“We must remember, the play was written for Gertrude Lawrence,” Llana reminded me, “from the source material of ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ by Margaret London. The 1944 novel tells the story of a British school teacher sent to teach the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. Yet, the ideals, the values seem so present in today’s world. The King was at a turning point, as America seems to be. He wanted to modernize his country and protect it from war. He was about advances in technology and culture, in fact, he was dubbed ‘The Father of Science and Technology’ in Siam,” the actor explained.

“He wasn’t met with universal approval,” he went on as he prepared for the evening’s performance. “Many liked the old ways, very misogynistic, women as property, uneducated, old traditions, but the King was conflicted by it and knew there was no future in it.”

So would he ‘Be with Her’ or try to ‘Make America Great Again,’ I had to ask?

“I think the King would be on the side of progress for women, for minorities, for children, even if he disagreed personally, if it was best for his country…So probably with Her,” he laughed.
“Well, then how about you being an openly gay actor playing the lead, what would Mongkut think of that?” I interjected.

“Again, not being an expert on their policy then, from what I do know, I think he would share in the pride I feel walking in to the theatre every night, an out, proud actor with a partner of 11 years now, a husband, a family life, unashamed of who I am and proud of my community,” Llana added.

Mongkut isn’t the only shadow in the play, the fact that Yul Brynner made this production his life’s work overall weighs heavy on Llana in a positive way. When I ask him if, when he gets to the dressing room, he knows just how much Brynner mattered, he questions.

“So, tonight, as you prepare back stage in that dressing room just off to stage left at the Pantages, how will it feel to know the very floor, the very walls not only have been shared by Brynner himself, that very space, but that the space is the way it is partly because of Brynner?” I asked the handsome young actor.

“For me, being born in Manilla, Philippines and then growing up in Springfield, Virginia outside of DC, having attended the Manhattan School of Music for voice where in my freshman year I first played a role in this play, it’s like coming home each night,” Llana said. “Brynner was an inspiration, especially to actors who didn’t fit the leading man template. He paved a way for me to stand here, to be in there tonight, literally on his shoulders.”

Brynner and the Pantages go way back. Yul Brynner was honored with his Academy Award for “The King and I” on the Pantages stage in 1957.  On September 13, 1983, during a wildly successful revival of the famed Broadway classic, Brynner would step on to that very same stage and give his 4,000th live performance as the King of Siam, according to their website.

However, I was referring more to the walls and carpeting and actual rooms. Brynner made many a theatre redo the backstage area with carpeting (for the bare feet) , more curtains for privacy and changing, darkening the walls to Brown or another color to hide blemishes more, even so far as a whirlpool. In February of 1981 The Washington Post caught up to him where he said this of the renovations.

“The latest dressing room to get a Yul-a-haul is at the Warner Theater, where “The King and I” starts previews Wednesday night, 30 years after Brynner and the King of Siam become associated. The Warner management has added a new paint job and carpeting and curtains, while dispensing with a wall or two in order to create a bona fide “star suite.” This is a small-scale renovation compared to what London’s Palladium Theater untertook two years ago. The Palladium spent $70,000 installing, among other items, a Jacuzzi and an electrically-operated massage chair — or so Variety reported in a story described by Brynner as “very misleading.”

“This is one of those funny things,” says Brynner, his impeccably enunciated words still coated in the ambiguously Eastern accent that has survived the four decades since he first reached Western shores. “I simply laugh at it, you see, instead of being offended. There are very simple reasons for these things. Nothing is done out of star vanity or luxury. It’s a three-hour show, you see. Very few people are aware of the fact that when you play a part such as the king, 85 percent of your waking hours are spent somehow on that play. To be able to go on playing without being embittered or over-tired, you can’t live in shabby, rundown conditions. The money that was spent on doing that dressing room was part of a whole program. The Palladium Theater backstage was terribly rundown. They decided to make a star dressing room for the Palladium Theater, not for Yul Brynner.”

“That’s incredible,” Llana laughed. “He was such a presence and his impact is still truly being felt. It’s odd, he died of lung cancer, remember that eerie PSA he left after his death? Well, Ms. Lawrence died of caner as well, so the person the play was written for by Rodgers and Hammerstein and then the man that would become an icon playing the part…odd how life seems to work out.”

On a brighter note Llana is equally as impressive in the role as Brynner with Laura Michelle Kelly providing the perfect Anna for the millennial generation that may have never seen the story. The songs from “My Lord and Master” to “Getting to Know You,” “Something Wonderful,” “I Have Dreamed,” and the perfect 11 o’Clock number “Shall We Dance?” are as, yes, iconic, as any theatre fan remembers; songs steeped in musical theatre history for almost 70 years. Yet, as dated as the themes of arranged marriages, educating all people, poor, women, children and their rights, of inevitable change and forbidden love may seem all ring as true today as when written in the early 20th Century or experienced in the latter 19th.

“The role is demanding physically, of course, all the dancing, but also, there’s a lot to think about in the play, there’s quite a dynamic between Anna and the King, and he often finds himself torn by what his heart wants and what his brain, or tradition, says. He’s an untraditional man in the ultimate traditional role, that of King, of supreme leader. And it’s about how progress is never easy, neither is love, and that people ultimately all behave the same in matters of the soul,” he concluded. “And in the end, it’s about forgiveness, after all, isn’t it? Anna, and the King, they must learn to forgive each other, and in many ways, themselves,” he continued.

I’m not the first reviewer to rave about this current production or the cast. This tour kicked off in November at Lincoln Center and along the way the Mercury News in San Jose has dubbed it a “Must See” while in 2015 it won four Tony Awards including Best Revival. One trip to the Pantages before mid-January, or at any number of tour stops in 2017, and you’ll see why. Even though it runs almost three hours, time stands still, costuming dazzles the eye while classic songs please the ear.

And all while Llana gets to fulfill a dream nightly.

“To say this is as good as it gets cuts off future experience, future possibility,” he added. “But let me tell you, while theatre has ups and downs, some things are great and others are everything you’ve heard about them, there is nothing better for me than playing this role at this time in my life. It’s not only a theatrical honor, it’s truly a dream fulfilled.”

Llana is also busy as a recording artist. His international releases sell very well in the Philippines making for an interesting career.

“It’s great to move from classic Broadway theater to Pop Music, International Pop Music, and to be so well received in the place I was born is incredible, it’s almost surreal,” he laughed.

“The King And I” is still some of the best theatre ever created and this production is doing the show proud. Llana and Kelly under Bartlett Sher’s direction, Christopher Gattelli’s updating of original choreography by Jerome Robbins, Ted Sperling supervising Rodgers’ music and Hammerstein II’s Book and Lyrics…it’s almost a master class in Theatre. Take it. To find out more go to the Hollywood Pantages Theatre for details.

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