Broadway's 'The King and I' hits the road with veterans

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — The cast on national tour with Lincoln Center's "The King and I" includes an actor who has played two different roles in the musical on Broadway, a one-time miraculous nanny and an actress who adored the film version as a child because she saw herself.

The Tony Award-winning revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic tale of clashing cultures has hit the road for a 19-city tour starring Jose Llana as the king, Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and Manna Nichols as Tuptim.

The musical's story centers on an Englishwoman who travels to Siam in the 1860s to teach the children of the king. The revival won the Tony Award in 2015 starring Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe. Its score by Rodgers and Hammerstein includes "I Whistle a Happy Tune," ''Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance."

Llana took over from Watanabe as the king on Broadway in two stints and knows the show very well: He made his Broadway debut in a 1996 revival, playing the part of Lun Tha, an envoy from the Prince of Burma.

"This show and 'The King and I' in general means a lot to me, personally," he said. "So many lessons can be learned from how the King and Anna, from two different worlds, find common ground and find a way to live peacefully."

Kelly, a West End veteran who played the title role in "Mary Poppins" and was just in "Finding Neverland" on Broadway, played Anna in a Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis production in 2012 but said she craved another chance. "I couldn't resist, especially with this amazing production," she said. "I knew it was time to put the corset back on."

Nichols, from Oklahoma City, is also a veteran of the musical, having played Tuptim at the Walnut St. Theatre and North Shore Music Theatre. She saw the Lincoln Center version the day after O'Hara won her Tony and the actress cheered her hometown heroine.

Nichols adored the 1958 film version starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and would beg her grandmother to "fast-forward to the girl who looks like me," she said. "I love watching everything but, as a child, you want to see people represented who look like you."

It will be Nichols' first national tour but Llana is a pro, having travelled with "Flower Drum Song" and "Martin Guerre." He's looking forward to the "King and I" making a stop next summer at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., his hometown. He plans to stay with his parents and predicts his mother will cook for the cast.

Llana, whose Broadway credits also include "Rent" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," is also looking forward to stops in Boston, where his sister lives, and Los Angeles and Philadelphia, where friends are.

"This tour is a really wonderful opportunity not just to bring 'The King and I' and this beautiful production around the country but to really catch up with a lot of family and friends," he said. "For once, it's nice for me to bring the show to them."