Hawaiian actor seeks the real man behind the crown in remount of musical The King and I

Pedro Ka'awaloa is the King of Siam in The King and I. Photo: Matthew Murphy

The Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein musical, The King and I, premiered on March 29, 1951.

The musical is based on a novel called Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon that was published in 1944. The novel in turn was based on a memoir by the British governess Anna Leonowens, who was hired in the 1860s to educate the children of King Mongkut of what was then known as Siam. The musical focuses on the relationship between Anna and the king as he tries to modernize his country.

The King and I is one of the most enduring classics from the golden age of Broadway. It had an initial run of some 1,246 performances before being turned into a movie. It has been revived several times including the most recent one which arrives in Ottawa on March 12.

The role of the king will likely forever be linked with the Russian-American macho man Yul Brynner. But in the current revival the role is played by Pedro Ka’awaloa, who was born on the Big Island of Hawaii and hails from the community of Pahoa. 

He’s been on the road with the musical for some four months now and has learned all about touring in the winter.

“We were just in Sioux Falls, South Dakota where it was -46F with the wind chill during the polar vortex,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE. So he’s pretty sure he can handle Ottawa’s weather. “I like the cold and the snow. It’s just very different,” he said. To stay healthy he trains in daily workout he calls the Siam boot camp. “It’s about being smart, so I also take garlic zinc and echinacea every day.”

Ka’awaloa has travelled an interesting road to his role in The King and I. As a Grade 8 student he was captivated by drama and performing but he was more interested in pursuing a career as an astronomer and and astrophysicist. When it came time to study at university he turned to music composition and conducting. He thought he would end up working as an academic and conductor.

After college “I went home. I was planning to go to graduate school but life grabs hold of you sometimes. I ended up doing some conducting and music directing and then I was working with kids at a charter school near where I live and at my high school.”

He still does like science by the way. “One of my favourite  YouTube channels is called minutephysics. I’m still nerdy in that way.”

All the while he was doing community theatre and realizing that that was his true passion.

In 2015, he had had enough and he picked up stakes and headed to New York where he got work almost right away. In fact his first gig was in another Rodgers and Hammerstein classic South Pacific at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford, New York.

“For me, it is the craft. I love diving into the material, finding things, finding moments. Being an intellectual person, I can’t help but get wrapped up in what art does and the messages sends. It’s a lot of fun because I get to create every night with very talented colleagues all working to the same goal.

“We are all still looking and finding more moments and more freshness.”

Yul Brynner performed the role of the king some 4,600 times in his career. There is no doubt that he influences all the others who have played the role.

Ka’awaloa believes it’s important to pay attention to Brynner’s performance.

“As artists, we want to create our own path. But you need to respect and acknowledge what has happened before you as well. One of my favourite books is called Steal Like An Artist.

“The premise of the book is that nothing is original. What matters is how you choose to create in your performance. Artists are gathering from all over the place.

“I watched The King and I with my grandmother when I was very young and I have directed it and conducted the music for it in Hawaii in 2015.”

He remembers what Brynner did in the show. And he watched how the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe played the role of the king when he performed at the Lincoln Center in New York. And he has paid attention to the work of Jose Llana who was the king before him on this tour.

“Everyone brought something unique to the role. Brynner had command and that masculinity. Ken brought a lot nuance to the role. You could see some comedy from him. Jose Llana played the youthfulness of the King.

“I see the man he was in history. He was a Buddhist monk for many years before he became king. He doesn’t know anything else besides Buddhism and royalty. He has moments of being a child and moments of being funny. But he is also a traditionalist. At the same time, he is very learned and morden and forward thinking.”

Put all of that together and you make a real person, Ka’awaloa said.

“I strive to find the humanity of who he is in every performance. But it’s not a caricature. He is three-dimensional. You identify with parts of him and you may not like parts of him.”

Ka’awaloa likes that this production delves into politics and what it means to lead a country.

“This show is more than 60 years old but it’s just replete with messages for today.”

He says the producers of the tour have also worked hard to identify with Asian culture in general and Thai culture in particular.

“We have a lot of Japanese members in our cast and even one of our ensemble members is from Thailand. They still have the custom of bowing. In the show Anna is adamant against bowing.

“From my perspective, in many ways Anna remains steadfast to her beliefs and won’t capitulate. We are on her side but we have to take a step back and wonder if Anna” is too immovable. The king, Ka’awaloa said, is trying to be modern. “And, here is a western woman who can’t (or won’t) acknowledge the other culture.

In this production, the historical back drop is that the British and French are trying to control Thailand, Ka’awaloa said. “That hits home for me. I’m from the Hawaiian kingdom. I am half Hawaiian and half Filipino. It is something that is not lost on me.”

The king, on the other hand, is angry and childish and “he has many wives who have to kowtow to him, Ka’awaloa said, “but he has a tradition to hold onto and he is the king. He did hire a woman to teach his kids and his wives because he believed women needed to be educated too.

“He prizes education. He listens, he doesn’t always agree but he listens. That is a lesson for someone to take home today.”

Broadway Across Canada presents The King and I
Where: Southam Hall
When: March 12-17
Tickets, showtimes and more information: nac-cna.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.