Actor Jose Llana: ‘The King and I’ even more relevant today
Jose Llana received critical acclaim for his performance as the King of Siam in the revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” INQUIRER FILE
CHICAGO — “The King and I” made its debut on Broadway in 1951 and, 66 years later, it remains one of the most enduring musicals in the annals of American stage history. It continues to enchant audiences with its melodious songs and, to the surprise of no one, its story is even more relevant today in the Age of Trump, and much more, to Filipino Americans, in the Time of Duterte.
This is a view shared by Jose LLana who is playing the title role in a much-acclaimed revival of the beloved Rodger-Hammerstein classic that is currently in this city’s roadshow engagement until July 2. “The message resonates louder in the present political climate,” said Llana in a recent telephone interview with PINOY.
‘The King and I,” based on the memoir of a British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens, who was hired by King Mongkut of Siam (Thailand) in the 1860s to educate his children and wives with western culture and teach them to speak English.
But the problems of colonialism, tyranny, anti-intellectualism, sexism, misogyny, slavery and feminism– all noted in Anna’s diary during the time of Queen Victoria—alas, rear their ugly heads today, giving the musical’s revival its contemporary relevance.
Llana, who won critical reviews playing Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love” when it premiered in New York three years ago, was interviewed by PINOY shortly after President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao.
“It is so sad that more than 60 percent of the Filipinos approved of the administration in the Philippines,” bewailed Llana. “The Filipino youth seems to have not learned the lessons of history…the influx of money from their parents working abroad made them feeling affluent and indifferent to compelling issues like human rights,’ he added.
Llana left his home in the City of Marikina with his parents in 1979 when he was only three. It was the sixth year of the martial law regime of Marcos. Although his parents were originally from Ilocos Sur, his mother was an activist in college who opposed the militarization of the Philippines. He grew up in Springfield, Virginia, where he finished high school.
During his first year at Manhattan School of Music, he auditioned for the 1996 revival of “The King and I” and won the role of the star-crossed lover, LunTha, singing two of the favorites, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed,” which he recorded later. Another Filipino American actor was then playing the title role of the King—Lou Diamond Phillips.
Twenty years later in 2015, Llana succeeded famous actor, Ken Watanabe, in the role of King of Siam in the Lincoln Center’s revival of “The King and I,” which would win four major Tony Awards—including Best Musical revival. Llana got rave reviews for his acting and went on to perform in New York for 11 weeks. When the production went on the road, Llana was the first choice to play the King.
In its winter debut at Hollywood Pantages Theater, Los Angeles critic, Deborah Wilker, wrote: “Because the late Yul Brynner inhabited this role so completely on stage and screen for more than 30 years, it became something close to folly for an actor even to try to do his own thing in the part. But Llana is a force, and his tormented, relatable King is another reason this evening is so dreamy.”
How true. I’ve seen last year a revival at the Chicago Lyric Opera with another Filipino American actor, Paolo Montalban, playing the King. While the stage of the Lyric is far larger than the Oriental Theater in the Chicago Loop and the capacity of the latter is just about the third of the Lyric’s, the current production is more innovative and engaging. You no longer feel like you are watching a reprise of the 20th Century Fox 1956 film version, starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner who won a Best Actor Oscar for his role.
A non-musical version of “Anna and the King of Siam” based on Margaret Landon’s 1944 book on Anna Leonowens’ diary came out in 1946 with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison in the tile roles. Jodie Foster and Chow Yum-fat starred in the 1999 version, “Anna and the King.”
Aside from Llana, no fewer than a dozen Filipino Americans are part of the cast assembled by the able director, Bartlett Sher. You’ll never forget Joan Almedilla playing Lady Thian, the king’s premier wife, singing “Something Wonderful”; she was authoritatively sweet, knowing she was the mother of the heir apparent, Prince Chulalongkorn.
The play runs a little under three hours but feels just like a moment, making one feel ready for one more delightful song. But then Llana, perfectly matched with Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna, leaves one humming and whistling “Hello Young Lovers,” “Shall We Dance,” “Getting to Know You” and all the lovely and happy tunes — long after the final curtain call.
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