In “The King and I,” two historical figures — King Mongkut of Siam and Anna Leonowens — come together on the stage, a classic rendition of a story that’s undergone multiple iterations, from Leonowens’ memoirs to Margaret Landon’s 1944 novel “Anna and the King of Siam.” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s version, however, has been beloved by musical theater fans since its original premiere in 1951.
That version will make its Penn State premiere on March 28, presented by the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
Pedro Ka’awaloa, who plays the King of Siam in the upcoming show at Eisenhower Auditorium, said there’s many reasons for the timelessness of the show, which revolves around a king’s desire to modernize his country through education.
“There’s a lot of magic, a lot of humanity in (the show) and I think it’s something everyone can enjoy, delve into and find something to latch onto,” he said. “These are the classics for a reason.”
In his interpretation of the King of Siam, Ka’awaloa strives to represent the true depth of his character, bringing forth the aspects of the king that make him both relatable and intriguing to a modern audience.
“King Mongkut ... was king for about 17 years. Prior to that, he was a Buddhist monk,” Ka’awaloa said, explaining that, since King Mongkut was an actual historical figure, he has examined not only the man in the musical, but also the man’s real life. “It was important for me to understand that he actually was a Buddhist monk for a longer time prior to becoming king and (to learn) about who he was as a human being, both inside and outside of the show.
“At the same time, we’re doing drama and it’s important to understand the message that the creators were trying to send through the musical as well, and navigate the truth and honesty in the story, as well as the history.”
Through his research and deep dive into both the history and the work, Ka’awaloa said he’s enjoyed uncovering the king’s humorous side as opposed to his serious intellectualism, his commonality with the character of Anna and his relationship to everyone else in the show. He and his fellow cast mates have spent time, he said, “talking about how our characters, the meaning and the purpose of our relationships and what we’re trying to bring forth on stage, so that when we’re on stage, we can just play in those moments ... and make them real for the audience.”
Fitting with the Center for Performing Art’s season theme “I am Woman,” one of the biggest themes of “The King and I,” according to Ka’awaloa, is the strength of women. He points to the main female characters as all “very strong women in many ways,” but also his character’s decisions in relation to the women around him.
“A lot of times, the king can be seen as very brusk, very angry, and domineering and misogynistic, but in the first moment of the show he makes a huge judgment to enable his women to be (educated), not just his children, but his women as well,” Ka’awaloa said. “Here’s a man who’s intellectual and he listens. He really is learning and wants to be educated and he makes decisions after he listens, based on the information and what he thinks will be the best. I think that’s such a smart and incredible thing.”
The ability to listen to others, and grow from listening, is a message in the show that adds to its timelessness as well as its timeliness.
“(The King and I) has a lot of messages about coming together, learning to listen to one another, learning to accept each other. We may not agree, but we should accept each other and respect each other. I think those are really great messages for all ages and definitely something our show has in spades,” Ka’awaloa said.
If you go
What: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”
When: 7:30 p.m. March 28
Where: Eisnehower Auditorium, University Park