Over time, the life of a stage actor can produce a few serendipitous moments, often due to the unpredictable nature of a career in theater. For Heather Geery, one aspect of her musical theater career has come full circle this summer.
In Lyric Theatre's 1983 staging of Rodgers and Hammerstein's “The King and I,” Geery made her Lyric debut playing a young princess in the court of the King of Siam. Thirty years later, she returns to the Lyric stage as Anna Leonowens, the teacher of the king's wives and children.
“This is the show that opened the door to my career as a music theater actress,” Geery said recently during a rehearsal break. “I've lived in New York, traveled the world on a cruise trip contract, and now I get to come back home and do the leading role in the first show I did at Lyric.”
Based on Leonowens' memoirs, as well as Margaret Landon's fictionalized account of the British teacher's work in the King of Siam's royal palace, “The King and I” was Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's fourth hit musical in a decade that also saw the premieres of “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel” and “South Pacific.”
Playing the imposing and opinionated monarch in Lyric's production of “The King and I” is Mel Sagrado Maghuyop, a native of Chicago who has been cast in numerous productions of “Miss Saigon” (the Engineer, Thuy) and “The King and I” (the King, the Kralahome). And while the role of the King places enormous demands on an actor, it simultaneously yields many cherished pleasures.
“The King's journey is largely about mistrust because of everything that was going on in Thailand and the fact that Western cultures were trying to take over Southeast Asia,” Maghuyop said. “He foresees the fact that Thailand and its traditions could be lost forever and that he could be the last king.”
Director Alan Muraoka, who previously helmed the Lyric productions of “Xanadu” and “High School Musical,” loves the battle of wits that ignites sparks between the two leading characters in “The King and I.” He also considers the musical a love story, but a love that can never happen.
“There was no romance between Anna and the King in the Margaret Landon book,” Muraoka explained. “It was a kind of love that comes from mutual respect. The King is naturally taken by Anna's physical appearance but she has a mind and a heart and that intrigues him.
“She's a teacher, and he's a King, which means that they're used to being heard and listened to. They're like alpha dogs. They both want something that the other has. They have a lot of walls to break through and slowly they find that they're willing to open up to each other.”
One innovation that promises to lend this production greater authenticity is the casting of 21 Asian-American children.
Playing the King's children by his numerous wives, this group's presence figures prominently in numbers ranging from “Getting to Know You” to the “March of the Siamese Children.”
“It's thrilling because it shows where we are as a country,” Muraoka said of his young cast. “There was a lot of outreach to organizations in the Asian community. For some of these kids, it's their first theatrical experience.
“I think it's interesting too that we're not trying to change or mask their personalities. There are quiet ones, loud ones, shy ones. We're embracing that rather than trying to make them all appear the same. It creates a real family where you see bonding between mothers and their children.”
Also lending a sense of authenticity in Lyric's production is the original choreography by Jerome Robbins. Greg Zane, who along with Muraoka appeared in the 1996 Broadway revival, was taught Robbins' choreography by Susan Kikuchi. Her mother Yuriko had created the role of Eliza in the original Broadway production and subsequently set Robbins' choreography in various productions.
“Jerome Robbins' choreography is as iconic as Bob Fosse's ‘Chicago,' or Michael Bennett's ‘A Chorus Line,'” Muraoka said. “Greg has been given this incredible gift that has been passed down through generations and the Lyric cast is lucky to be doing a piece of musical theater history.”