Fil-Am actor Jose Llana leads diverse cast of ‘The King and I’

Fil-Am actor Jose Llana leads diverse cast of ‘The King and I’

National tour at Hollywood Pantages Theatre until January 21 

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” prevails as a timeless musical production that has undergone several revivals since it first premiered in 1951.

Based on the novel “Anna and the King of Siam,” the story follows British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens who was hired to teach the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the 1860s. While casting a light on political and gender issues, the musical lives on in American culture for its catchy songs, such as “I Whistle a Happy Tune,” “Getting to Know You,” and “Shall We Dance.”

Though the storyline may be predictable and well-known, the current national tour of the musical is a must-see with its lineup of talent, strong cast rapport, and stunning set displays and lighting.

For the Filipino-American community in Los Angeles in particular, it’s a treat to see a handful of Fil-Am actors on the Pantages Theatre stage, such as Jose Llana in the title role of the King and Joan Almedilla as Lady Thiang, the King’s head wife. They star alongside Laura Michelle Kelly as the lovable Anna.

It’s a full-circle moment for Llana to mark his return to “The King and I,” two decades after a previous revival of it launched his career. As a college freshman, Llana — who was born in the Philippines and grew up in Virginia — auditioned for and landed the role of Lun Tha (Tuptim’s young lover), in the 1996 production that starred Lou Diamond Phillips as the King and Donna Murphy as Anna.

“I think Lou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy will always be mentors for me, and people that showed me what it looks like to be a leader in a company and how to be a good person and professional in the theater industry,” Llana reflected during his interview with the Asian Journal, days before the national tour came to Los Angeles on December 13.

Since his first shot on Broadway, Llana’s extensive résumé has included “Rent,” “Flower Drum Song” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Recently, he portrayed late Philippine President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne’s off-Broadway rock musical “Here Lies Love.”

“What was different about [“Here Lies Love”] was that you were actually playing Filipinos. You know we were talking about a time in Filipino history that a lot of people don’t like to talk about. That could not be more relevant now, especially now recently with Marcos being given a hero’s burial. But I think what’s important when Filipinos see other Filipinos performing, the more we all get to together remind each other where we come from,” Llana said.

Becoming King

For the current revival of “The King and I,” director Bartlett Sher eyed Llana in 2015 to replace Ken Watanabe for the royal role during its remaining run on Broadway and eventually in the national tour, which kicked off this fall.

Before Llana officially joined the cast, the musical — which was housed at The Vivian Beaumont Theater of the Lincoln Center in New York — had just won four Tony Awards in 2015: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical (Kelli O’Hara as Anne), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical (Ruthie Ann Miles as Lady Thiang), and Best Costume Design (Catherine Zuber).

Llana said succeeding Watanabe was similar to “wearing [his] father’s shoes” and required three weeks of intense rehearsals.

“[Sher] wanted to get into the heart of what it meant as a ruler for my character, as the King to try and protect his country but at the same time protect his culture. And whatever decade you’re talking about, that’s always a constant struggle for anybody,” Llana said, noting that this revival really hones in on the “political message.”

The director praised Llana’s “superb” portrayal of the King on Broadway that he “begged” the Fil-Am actor to join the touring company.

“[Llana] brings such joy and virility and strength to the King,” Sher said in a statement. “And he is one of Broadway’s great talents.”

Llana’s thoughtful command of the role is evident throughout the show, while simultaneously slipping in moments of humor and compassion. In “A Puzzlement,” the audience observes the King grappling with his identity and capacity as a leader, while iconic number “Shall We Dance” catches the King in an unguarded moment that paints him with a tinge of humanity.

Fil-Am ensemble

Though Llana is not the first Asian American to assume the role of the King, representing the community and bringing that diversity shows how much theater has progressed.

“I think the biggest shift in the last 10 years has been that the Asian American community and the theater community, in general now, will not stand for someone putting on yellowface,” he said. “It’s a lot less tolerated now — that’s a huge deal for us, as Asian Americans, that there is a part of us and we can actually be cast in it.”

But, he said, there is a lot more to be done in terms of making sure writers of color are given the resources and opportunities to write their own stories.

“What’s incredible is that diversity is thankfully finding its way into contemporary stories…and it gives us as actors of color opportunities to be part of the stories,” he said.

In addition to Llana and Almedilla, this national tour of “The King and I” boasts a cast of Fil-Ams in prominent roles:  Brian Rivera as Karalahome; Lamae Caparas, Marie Gutierrez, Michael Lomeka and Rommel Pierre O’Choa in the ensemble; and Almedilla’s son CJ Uy, Jaden and Kayla Amistad, and Adriana and Amaya Braganza as royal children.

“I could not be more excited,” Llana remarked. “It’s a really great, strong Pinoy company.”

Of her role as Lady Thiang, Almedilla told the Asian Journal that her interpretation is less “submissive” and more of a “strong woman who means business” and has the King’s best interests in mind. In a “pivotal moment,” she wows the crowd with her emotional, yet forceful rendition of “Something Wonderful.”

Though the King and Lady Thiang don’t share big scenes together, both Almedilla and Llana noted a “mutual understanding” of one another to make the audience aware of the subtleties in the characters’ relationship.

After Los Angeles, the production will be touring until next August across the United States, including stops in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC.

With frequent performances, Llana said devoting “quiet time” each night is an important reminder.

“I don’t sing as much as I normally do in this show because the King role is not necessarily a huge singing role, but I yell a lot and I speak a lot in the show. It’s very much a three-hour show. Both Laura and I have to really watch our stamina and make sure we can give a full-throttle show at the end of the week as well as the first show of the week. When you’re on the road, the traveling is hard, and when we’re staying in each city, we can pretty much just focus on the show without all the outside influences coming in,” he said.

“The King and I” is at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre until January 21 from Tuesdays-Sundays with select Monday performances. There are no evening performances on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve and no performances on Christmas Day. For more information, please visit  www.TheKingAndITour.com or HollywoodPantages.com.

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