Interview with Anthony Chan of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The King and I’ opening Tuesday at the Peace Center
BY SANDY STAGGS
His full name is Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poraminthra Maha Chulalongkorn Phra Chunla Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua.
But you can call him Prince Chulalongkorn. Or just Anthony Chan.
Chan is midway through a nearly two-year North American tour as heir to the throne in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s masterpiece “The King and I,” which opens its palace gates Tuesday at the Peace Center.
Winner of four 2015 Tonys including Best Revival, this Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Bartlett Sher features the acclaimed Laura Michelle Kelly (the original “Mary Poppins” in the West End and Broadway’s Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in “Finding Neverland”) and Jose Llana from the Broadway run as the titular royal.
Based on Margaret Landon’s “Anna and the King of Siam,” “The King and I” recounts Anna Leonowens’ adventures as governess to the children and wives of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. And this musical features some of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most renowned arias such as “Getting to Know You,” “Shall We Dance,” “Something Wonderful” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”
Chan, 25, says his character “is just your average 15-year-old teenager who is curious about everything.”
“He is torn about everything and he is going through that stage wondering if he is going to be as great as his dad,” says the San Francisco Bay Area native who has toured nationally in “Anything Goes” and has several Off-Broadway and regional shows to his credit.
“He is forced to grow up and rule the country at an early age,” he says, noting that the Prince has the greatest arc in the story as he challenges and then embraces modern Western culture.
Chan appears in several scenes but his shining moment is in “A Puzzlement” (reprise), a duet with Graham Montgomery, who plays Anna’s son Louis.
“That number is usually taken out in a lot of productions,” he says. “The struggles of the adults parallel the struggles for me and Louis.”
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, you’re going to be constantly questioning. That number is pretty awesome.”
Since its inception in 1951, “The King and I” has been indelibly linked to Russian-born Swiss actor Yul Brynner, who played King Mongkut on and off for some 34 years. And for decades the show had a storied history of casting Caucasian actors in “yellow-face.”
More recently, Broadway producers have been criticized for racially-insensitive casting in shows such as “Aladdin” with no Middle-Easterners represented. Even the juggernaut “Hamilton” received some backlash for its initial casting call for non-white actors. On the flip-side of the proverbial ethnic coin, some audience members were outraged that an Asian actor is heading a touring production of “The Little Mermaid.”
“Bart (Sher) definitely wanted to make this cast as diverse as possible with Asian actors and didn’t want to step on any toes or race,” Chan concedes. “Bart had a big challenge to cast a bunch of Asians and he pulled a lot of the cast from the Broadway production and from the vast pool of Asian talent in New York.”
Coincidentally, the real Anna was always depicted as Anglo when she was, in fact, half-Indian; though this was not discovered until some six years after “The King and I” was written.
As a working Asian actor, Chan says he generally plays comedic roles as “the sidekick or the funny man.”
“This is the most challenging role to date for me,” he says. “But I always go for what’s right for me. It doesn’t have to be an Asian role.”
And what’s it like working with the great Laura and Jose?
“Amazing from day one! They wanted to make this company a family and they are the leaders of this company,” he says. “Laura is a sweetheart to work with on and off stage.”
And he considers Llana, the Filipino-American extraordinaire who actually played Lun Tha in the 1996 revival on Broadway, “a big brother.”
He has been in awe of Llana ever since his 2002 performance as Wang Ta in “Flower Drum Song.” “I thought, ‘Okay, I get to work with one of my idols.’ ”
“Jose is a very funny man … and he brings a different point of view as the King,” he says, noting that many reviewers have heralded Llana as the funniest King ever.
In addition to Ms. Zuber, Sher reunites with his award-winning creative team from “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza”: scenic design by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Scott Lehrer, and choreography by Christopher Gattelli based on the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.
“Many people have seen “The King and I” before, but this is a grand spectacle of the show,” Chan proclaims. “The set is nothing but beautiful as are Zuber’s (Tony-winning) costumes. The design, the intricacies of the details, you can see it from the back of the house.”
“Come check out our show,” Chan urges Upstate theatregoers.
“The King and I” runs Tuesday, August 22 – Sunday, August 27 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. For tickets call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org.