A Role Fit for a King
It’s good to be king. Especially after you’ve played a peasant.
Just ask Jose Llana, who, in 1995 as a freshman in college, was cast in the Broadway revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, starringLou Diamond Phillips and Donna Murphy.
Now Llana is in the title role, playing the King of Siam first on Broadway — succeeding the Tony-nominated Ken Watanabe — and now on the national tour, which arrives at Hartford’s Bushnell May 30 to June 4.
“It was a dream come true,” Llana told me in a telephone chat from Houston, where the tour had landed.
The Philippine-born, Virginia-raised Llana says he learned how to be king through his mentors in that earlier revival: Phillips and Murphy. “I learned how to be a professional in that production,” says Llana, who also played another country’s leader not too long ago: Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the off-Broadway hit Here Lies Love. (He also played Chip in Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.)
“Lou led on-stage and off-stage by example and by the heart,” says Llana. “He knew how important it was to create a sense of family in the production, especially since there are children in the cast. This tour has nine kids in the cast and someone is always having a birthday, or you have to be sensitive when kids are having a bad day because they might be feeling homesick.
“Having a show like that as my first professional show when I was 19 set the bar very high. It was a close company and we’re still close, having reunions every few years.”
As for Here Lies Love, which features original music by David Byrne and dazzling direction by Yale grad Alex Timbers, there is future life for the show. A new production now playing in Seattle may set the stage for its return to New York. In the meantime, Llana is having a royal time of it through August on tour.
Tables Are Turned
“Did you write a song named ‘Table?’”
That’s what director Gordon Edelstein asked Adam Gopnik, who wrote the book and lyrics for the world premiere of the Long Wharf Theatre musical that was originally called Table — and is now titled The Most Beautiful Room in New York.
Then Edelstein asked: “Did you write a song called ‘The Most Beautiful Room in New York?’”
“Of course, that’s the theme of the show,” says Gopnik.
The point was well made about the musical, which centers on a contemporary family whose intimate restaurant, livelihood and identity are threatened.
“I had a deep attachment for the title Table because it’s the name of the restaurant in the show, it’s catchy and it’s in the classic one-word-title tradition — though it did not have an exclamation point,” Gopnik told me over coffee in Manhattan recently. “But the title Table was, in every sense, a little flat and is not an evocative word in itself. It didn’t tell you that much thematically, but The Most Beautiful Room in New York does. In truth, it was the title waiting to happen.”
The New Yorker writer says he wants the musical, which runs May 3-28 and features music by Broadway veteran and Yale grad David Shire, to touch people. “That’s the unique thing about musical theater: when it works, it touches people in a way that no other art form that I know can.”
Though writing for the stage may be new, Gopnik knows a bit about the stage and camera as a kid actor. “I was the face of Big Brothers of America in its commercial: ‘Won’t you be a big brother to someone like me?’ That was me.”
Ben Vereen’s Roots
“I thought it was a good attempt and good that they kept Roots alive,” says Tony Award-winner Ben Vereen of last year’s television remake of 1976’s Roots.
Vereen played the memorable Chicken George in the original Roots mini-series, which made television history 40 years ago.
Vereen was disappointed the producers of the reboot did not invite members from the original cast, not necessarily to be part of the filming but to be part of the dialogue and events surrounding the show.
“We were there with Alex Haley,” he says, “so those who are doing the roles now [should] know whose shoulders they are standing on.”
Vereen, 70, will bring his own solo show — which he is labeling his Gratitude Tour, and may be the last time he takes his autobiographical show out on the road — to the Ridgefield Playhouse May 21.
Have You Heard ...
… that two-time Tony Award-winner Judith Light (known for roles in small-screen comedies such as the mom on Who’s the Boss? and, more recently, Amazon’s Transparent) will receive the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Monte Cristo Award at its annual gala in New York on May 21? Each year, the Waterford theater center honors a person who makes an indelible mark on American theater.
Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at FrRiz@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter@ShowRiz.