If you go
› What: Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “The King and I”
› Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
› When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Dec. 18-20
› Admission: $37, $52, $67 and $77 plus fees
› For more information: 423-757-5580
More than 70 years after Margaret Landon's novel "Anna and the King of Siam" was written, the story of understanding and respecting different cultures is just as relevant now as then.
That story of two cultures colliding will be presented in three performances at the Tivoli Theatre when Rodgers & Hammerstein's "The King and I" national tour stops in Chattanooga. The musical is filled with beloved hits such as "Hello Young Lovers," "Shall We Dance?" and "Getting To Know You."
This touring production is based on the 2015 Tony Award-winning Lincoln Center Theater musical. Set in 1860s Bangkok, it tells the story of the tempestuous relationship between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the king brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children.
Pedro Ka'awaloa, a native of Hilo, Hawaii, is cast as the King of Siam. Although he began performing in eighth grade, he entered Harvard University as an astronomy and astrophysics major. When he later switched to a music major, it was in conducting, composition and music theory, not performance.
He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in music, and returned to Hawaii, where he taught choirs and conducting with a future goal of pursuing a professorship. He had just accepted the band director's job at his alma mater when he decided to make the jump to New York City in June 2014 and pursue musical theater.
His first professional show was "South Pacific" in 2014, in which he played Henry, servant to Emile de Becque. In 2015, he was El Gallo in "The Fantasticks." This musical is his first national tour, and Ka'awaloa says it has been "an absolute joy."
The show travels with a crew of 65, which includes a cast of 35 and a nine-piece orchestra.
"When people come to see the show, they will hear a lush, beautiful sound — everything people would expect from Rodgers & Hammerstein," says the actor. "Angela Baumgardner, our Anna, and Deanna Choi, as Lady Thiang, are stunning vocalists. There are so many stellar voices in this cast. The audience will be stunned."
Ka'awaloa says audiences may be surprised to find this production differs some from the movie.
"The Lincoln Center productions always do their historical research well. One of the things I love so much about this show is that Michael Yeargan did the sets, and they really went back to who Mongkut was as king (the ruler on which Anna Leonowens' memoirs are based). There's not a lot of gold; it's really Buddhist in its perspective. This shows they gave a lot of thought about bringing to life the humanity of these characters and this world."
He concedes the comparisons between his portrayal of the King and Yul Brynner, who played the King of Siam on Broadway and in the 1956 film, are inevitable.
"It's a lot for me to look up to; it's an honor to follow him. We focus on being commanding, but being very endearing. The script does a lot of it for me. I've spent so much of my life being a teacher that performing for me is having a message and sharing it so that someone walks away thinking about the performance we just did."
Ka'awaloa says this production looks at the classic musical through a modern lens to see what audiences and performers can take away from it.
"This show is so important to our world today. It talks about 'getting to know you,' understanding others. Our message is you don't necessarily have to agree with people, but you need to respect and listen to them. That's one of the biggest issues our country is dealing with today.
"The king's dealing with Colonialism, British and French occupation. There are a lot of big issues he is dealing with, but at the same time he is still listening and learning from Anna."
Ka'awaloa hopes Chattanoogans will "come to hear the music they know and love, see the story they know and love. You'll laugh, cry and leave having learned something."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.