Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The King & I’: A Treasured Heirloom Comes to Jacksonville Nov. 13-18

Like many beloved Broadway musicals, the story of “The King & I” has traveled through decades and across oceans like a treasured heirloom passed down from generation to generation. Based on the true story of Anna Leonowens in 1860’s Bangkok, its carries with it the truths of the cultures reflected in this extraordinary telling.

“The King & I” is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series Broadway in Jacksonville November 13th-18th in the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater (www.artistseriesjax.com). The musical tells the story of the unconventional and tempestuous relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British school teacher whom the modernist King brings to Siam to teach his many wives and children. Considered one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s finest works, The King & I boasts a score of such classics as ‘Getting To Know You,’ ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune,’ ‘Hello Young Lovers,’ ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘Something Wonderful.’

Angela Baumgardner was familiar with story long before she auditioned for the role of Anna. As a child, she’d traced her fingers along its intricate details and dreamed of its exotic beauty. She didn’t know how or even why, but she felt that she was destined to one day experience that magic as her own.

“It’s such an iconic role. The beauty of it is that I’ve gotten to see this production, the 2015 Tony Award-winning production from Lincoln Center, so I was already captured by this particular interpretation. For me, any acting piece that I do, I look at what parts of her character resonate with me. Even since 2015, there have been several different Annas, and everyone is different because every person is different. For me, the biggest thing that stands out is her strength. I don’t think there is a weak bone in her body, except maybe for the children, and I can totally relate to that as well.”

“[During] her struggle in Siam and with all that is going on, she is strong in her beliefs and her principles. There are moments that she just wants to leave, but it’s for the sake of the children that she always stays. There was a point in my life, too, when I just had this revelation that everything we do is all about the next generation, and I see that in Anna. She has a sense of destiny and a sense of purpose, even in going to Siam, even in accepting the King’s offer. And what she is able to do there is invest in and impact the next generation, specifically the next King. She’s given this great offering, and I think that’s what captured me even in the rehearsal process with the children and the young prince, soon-to-be king.”

The masterful score by Rodgers & Hammerstein sets the tone of the course and brings the audiences along for the journey which exists in a space all its own. As in most of the productions scored by the brilliant team, there is a political undercurrent that runs alongside stories of forbidden love, differences in class and clashes in culture.

The King of Siam and Anna Leonowens in Rodgers & Hammerstein's King and I. Photo by Jeremy Daniel, “The King & I” is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series Broadway
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

“There’s a challenge that every couple is facing, and there’s always a political thing as well. In “Cinderella,” yes, it’s a class difference, and the prince that will become a king. In “The Sound of Music,” it’s set against the backdrop of a Nazi invasion. In Siam, it’s the clash of cultures and Anna trying to exert herself as an equal, but there is no equal to the king. He is worshiped as a god.  I grew up on Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’m from Oklahoma, so every child performed in Oklahoma. We’re one of the ony states with a musical written about us. I’ve grown up with all these stories and loved all the stories since I was a child. What I loved about the relationships is they are so multi-dimensional. There’s an attraction, but there’s the high stakes of who she is and who he is. In “The King & I,” it’s an intellectual attraction and respect and admiration.”

The chemistry between actors is important in order to deliver an authentic performance and be believable in the portrayal of the characters. The connection between Anna and the King exists in the restraint of propriety and the electricity charged by an underlying sexual tension rippling beneath the surface – in a family friendly way, of course.

Before she’d won the role, before she’d even auditioned, Baumgardner met the future prince outside the backstage door of the iconic Lincoln Center where “The King & I” captivated audiences with its Tony Award-winning run. Pedro Ka’ Awaloa was auditioning for the part of the future King and the two entered together as a pair of young hopefuls with a destiny to fulfill.

Anna in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Jeremy Daniel, “The King & I” is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series Broadway
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

“With any actor you play against, you have to like them. During my audition process, there was only one being that I ever auditioned with, and that was Pedro. Our audition was actually at Lincoln Center, which never happens. You’re always auditioning at some studio or rehearsal space. For both us, I’d never been inside Lincoln Center backstage, so just to be there was incredible. We first met outside the backstage door, and we shared this moment together walking in, and they took us into this rehearsal hall, and said ‘ok, you two are going to read together.’ So already there was this excitement and energy, and it worked right away,” says Baumgardner.

“We had a great first introduction, and were able to build off that during the rehearsal process. And seeing each other grow in the role has just taken it to another level. The audience sees the finished product, but we’re investing hours in every scene and every nuance. It’s been a treat to see how our performances together, and our reactions and chemistry and tensions together, grow every time we go back to the scene. It thrills me to know what the audience is going to get to experience based on the time we’ve put in together.”

Remembering that little girl in Oklahoma, Baumgardner relishes the time on stage with her youngest castmates. She imagines the experience through their young eyes and the memories they will carry on through their lives. It’s the same feeling she gets when she catches the moment the music strikes a chord with a young audience member. She remembers that spark and is grateful for the opportunity to not only share this amazing journey but to ignite the passion for storytelling and music.

“For them to write this musical in the 50’s, and for it to still have such an impact today is incredible. It is a gift to share this with the next generation, just as I learned it when I was a kid. It’s a timeless story and a show that has something for everyone.”

About Liza Mitchell

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