Department of Theatre and Dance presents spring musical 'The King and I'
Because of her experience teaching private voice lessons to children, Hannah Lundy said being cast for the role of Anna Leonowens in Southeast Missouri State University's spring musical production of "The King and I" didn't feel too foreign.
"Being in a leadership role, especially around children, was not hard for me to transition into," Lundy said. "It's very personal for me."
Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" was based on "Anna and the King of Siam," a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon. The storyline is set in 1862 and follows British schoolteacher Anna Leonowens and her transition with her son after she's hired by the King of Siam as a tutor for his family. Despite a clash of cultures and an unwillingness to initially set aside tradition, the two find being open to understanding and learning about another person far surpasses pride and ego and differences.
"It's East meets West," guest director Dennis Courtney said. "It's ... how their differences create conflict and how in the end, they realize that through love and through tolerance and through acceptance, that we're all more alike than we are different."
Courtney's direction of "The King and I" isn't his first work at Southeast. He directed Southeast's presentation of "The 1940's Radio Hour" back in 2008, following with "Carousel" in 2010.
He said he has returned to Cape Girardeau every year since to work with students in master classes for the Department of Theatre and Dance's end-of-year Senior Showcase.
"The opportunity came up to do 'King and I' and I jumped at it because I love working here, I love the department, I love SEMO," Courtney said. "We're just having the best time."
An experienced director and audition coach out of New York City, Courtney knew what he was looking for when it came to casting. There's common parameters that speak to technical skill -- "act it, sing it, dance it," but Courtney looks for one other component as well.
"But then you look for people who are very good storytellers and people who aren't afraid to expose their heart and soul on stage, to let you know who they are as people," Courtney said. "Because acting is a very brave thing. You're up on stage exposing not only the words that someone's written for you but your own heart and soul as well."
That's where Lundy finds her success.
"It's not a laborious process for me to step into Anna Leonowens's shoes," Lundy said.
That doesn't mean it's a cake walk either. Lundy said she was able to connect with Anna through interests and experience, but she was challenged by connecting on that same level with the character's personality.
"Anna is a firecracker," Lundy said. "Her biggest problem is her temper, and while I am passionate about what I do, I'm not quick to anger, and Anna is quick to anger. So working on that connection has probably been the hardest for me and making that an honest, authentic reaction."
Courtney said, in general, "The King and I" is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein's tougher and more demanding pieces. Along with "Oklahoma" and "Carousel," "The King and I" stages a ballet scene, certifying a dance-heavy show.
The length of the composition is also unconventional. Modern musicals stick to around 90 minutes, but "The King and I" has a total running time of two and a half hours, according to Courtney. From the perspective of an actor, that calls for endurance.
"The show is basically carried by the two leads, Anna and the King, and they rarely leave the stage," Courtney said. "It's really a marathon for them. Everyone else has to work hard, too, at identifying their different characters, so it really is about building stamina for this show."
Lundy said Courtney's real-world approach to directing the cast contributed to building that "stamina" in the most effective amount of time possible for a university production.
"I think it has become more real that this is a way of life, that rehearsal is your job," Lundy said. "So, in that way, it's been really positive for me, at least what I've witnessed. It's been a very professional-feeling rehearsal process, which just builds on what we teach here at Southeast, is that it's professional. You come here to work. Dennis is so efficient, which is brilliant for the actor because we still have two weeks, and it feels like we have that whole time to clean and get even more performance ready."
Courtney said he doesn't change his approach from working in New York to working with students at Southeast. He wants the cast to experience the production process the same way he would go about a production process with a Broadway company.
There's always the hope that the set doesn't collapse, there's no technical malfunctions, actors don't suddenly forget their lines onstage, everything runs smoothly, but at the end of the day, seeing individuals gain knowledge or a newfound appreciation within the process is what he finds most rewarding.
"It's always when I see actors or technicians or anybody working in the department, when they get something, when they understand the truth of something and when it builds their self-esteem and when I watch them become changed because of that," Courtney said.
It's often said that a cast is a family. Lundy said every show is different and offers a different family-bond aspect, but it's always the case.
"Everything about it feels so positive because everyone is learning about each other, everyone is getting to understand each other, getting to know each other," Lundy said. "This show is different cultures becoming one and breaking down barriers, so I think, in that way, it's the most family-like show I think I've ever done."
"The King and I" will hold performances at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25, 26 and 28, 8 p.m. Feb 27 and 2 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 1 in the Donald C. Bedell Performance Hall at Southeast's River Campus.
Tickets are $3 for students on presentation of a Southeast ID and can be purchased at the River Campus Box Office, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., or online at RiverCampusEvents.com.