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Fil-Am actors take center stage in Chicago ‘The King and I’

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Actor-Singer Paolo Montalban plays the king to Kate Baldwin’s British governess of the royal children. Paolo is one of the dozen Filipino Americans to land coveted roles in this all-time Broadway musical favorite by Rodgers and Hammerstein. CONTRIBUTED

CHICAGO—“This Rodgers and Hammerstein’s play is the ‘Hamlet’ of Broadway musicals for Asian actors,” so says Paolo Montalban who plays the title role in Chicago’s Lyric Opera opulent production of “The King and I,” on April 29 to May 22.

What’s more, this revival of the all-time favorite Broadway hit also features mostly Filipino American actors who take on both key roles and ensemble parts.

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“I am so proud that about 20 fellow Filipino American actors and actresses are with me in this major production,” added Paolo who will play the strong-willed King of Siam (now Thailand) at the most coveted venue in Chicago for singers who got it made in operas and contemporary classic musical plays.

Lee Blakeley who directs this particular production mentioned that it took three years to search for the right performers, and it was only six months ago that the full cast was assembled. That speaks volume on the quality of the talents brought in by the Filipino actors who eventually made the final cut in this particular production.

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The play was based on the memoir of an English teacher, Anna Leonowen, who went with her young son, Louis, in 18th century Siam to be a governess to the many children of the king. After its successful Broadway stint in the early 1950s, “The King and I” was made into a hit film version with British actress Deborah Kerr playing the governess and Yul Brynner who went on to win the 1957 Oscar Best Actor Award for his iconic role as the king.

There are also two non-musical film versions of “Anna and the King of Siam” with Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne (B&W, 1946) and “Anna and the King’ with Jodie Foster and Chow Yon-Fat (Color, 1999). Any revival of the musical is always considered bankable.

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“Getting to Know You”: Anna, the English teacher, introduces her son Louis to the King’s heir apparent while the wives of the King of Siam look on. Fil-Am actors Rona Figureoa and Matthew Uzurraga play the mother and son roles. CONTRIBUTED

Paolo happily noted that now the Asian king is being played by an Asian actor. He also mentioned the fact that it is always a struggle for minorities like him to be able to get meaningful roles in the American entertainment industry. This Makati-born actor laughed when this writer suggested that a Tony awaits him if and when he reprises his role on Broadway.

Paolo’s parents were originally from the Metro Manila area. He was just a year old when his parents immigrated to New York in 1974. Though he has an impressive resume of roles he played on stage, TV and the movies, he found it prudent to finish his pre-med courses at Rutgers University. He’s well remembered for his role as the prince in the Disney television production of “Cinderella.”

After he is done with his current Chicago engagement, Paolo looks forward to snagging more interesting TV roles like the ones he played on “Madame Secretary.”

“I would love to be in the NBC TV series, ‘Chicago P.D.,’ he jokingly said. When queried about his marital status, he again laughed loudly and answered, “Yes, I’m single.”

Paolo said he would like to appear again before a Filipino audience in Manila although he remembers having challenges with the work style back home. “I was told that things have improved since I was involved in some TV work a while ago,” he added.

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Asked if he eats Filipino food, “Yes, of course. I like turon the best,” he excitingly admitted.

Sinigang, meanwhile, is the favorite of Chicago- born Ali Ewoldt who is playing the role of the rebellious royal servant, Tuptim. Her Filipino connection goes back to her maternal grandpa, Leo, who was originally from Pangasinan. He came to Chicago and taught at the University of Illinois.

Now, a New Yorker, Ali is on respite from playing the same role at the Lincoln Center. She also has an impressive resume, making her Broadway debut as Cossette in “Les Miserables,” then as Maria in the national tour of “West Side Story,” and most recently, receiving the loudest applause from her stirring operatic rendition of “My Lord and Master,” from the “ The King and I.”

Ali appeared in a non-singing role in Tennessee Williams’, “Period of Adjustment.” She, like Paolo, earned a college degree. She went to Yale for her Liberal Arts degree and graduated cum laude. She’s happy to say that her parents are very supportive of her acting career. After she is done in Chicago, she will resume her commitment at the Lincoln Center production of “The King and I.”

The Lyric Civic Opera had previously staged the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, “Oklahoma!,” “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific” and “Carousel”—and when asked about the possibility of the Lyric producing the other Asian-theme musical, “Flower Drum Song,” both Ali and Paolo are excited to see that into fruition and be able to be part of it again.

The role of heir-apparent, Prince Chuklalongorn, went to a 13-year-old Filipino American who lives with his parents in a west suburb of Chicago. Matthew Uzurrraga struggled initially in answering questions in our interview that revolved around his Filipino ethnicity.

His mom, Estrellita, who acts as his stage mom, interceded and explained that her son has yet to take into account having a lolo and lola who were originally from the Quezon Province. Estrellita and her husband were born in the States with both Filipino parents. Matthew is a third-generation child born in Florida but is now a home-schooled Chicago actor.

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Alan Ariano plays the role of the Prime Minister, but is the understudy of Paolo in his role as the King. The versatile actor played both roles in various productions all over the U.S. CONTRIBUTED

Matthew had appeared previously in local productions of “Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol” among others. He also played before the same role he will be playing at the Civic Opera. Appearing as his mother in the play is San Francisco-born Filipina singer Rona Figueroa, who will sing one of the play’s memorable songs, “Something Wonderful.”

Rona admitted that she never acted before she won a role in the first national tour of “Miss Saigon.” But she is known as a “singer-to-watch” around the California communities where her parents have taken residence after they immigrated from the Philippines. Her dad speaks Pampango and her mom, Ilocano.

When the subject turned to Filipino food, she asked for numbers of area restaurants where she could get goat kaldereta (not beef, please), dinuguan and pinakbet. Her past performances were mainly in works like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Les Miserables.” Her Chicago debut adds a new dimension to her range of appearances. Rona, also single, now lives in New York.

The last major role played by a Filipino American is that of the Prime Minister, The Kralahome, and this one went to Alan Ariano, who actually had played the title role of the king in three past productions. Like Ali Ewoldt, Alan is in hiatus from playing the role of the Prime Minister in the current Lincoln Center run in New York.

A seasoned actor, he has appeared in “M. Butterfly”, “Shogun: The Musical,” “Miss Saigon” and “Flower Drum Song.” His TV credits include “Law and Order,” “As the World Turns,” “Saturday Night Live” and HBO’s “Treme” playing opposite Isabella Rossellini.

But when the entrance march of the king’s children is played and Anna leads them in the singing of the favorite, “Getting to know you,” take note of how many more Filipino American actors have made it in this major revival of a Broadway classic.

“The King and I” was not meant to be a part of the Asia Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May but, inadvertently, this Lyric Civic Opera production may yet turn out to be the best activity in Chicago to celebrate this annual event this year.

Some of the beloved Broadway show tunes including “Shall we dance,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “We Kiss in the Shadow” await lovers of great music, to be performed by talented performers from the Filipino community.

The Lyric Civic Opera is making available a five-performance Mothers’ Day (Friday to Sunday, May 6-8) special price offering of $99 (Main floor), $69 (lower balcony) and $29 ( upper balcony) to the Filipino community, call (312) 827-5600 and mention the promo code PINOY.

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TAGS: " Alan Ariano, “Anna and the King of Siam, “The King and I, ” Rex Harrison, Actor-Singer Paolo Montalban, Anna and the King, Anna Leonowen, Broadway, Chicago production of The King and I, Chicago’s Lyric Opera, Chow Yun-Fat, Deborah Kerr, Filipino American actors in the cast of The King and I, Getting to Know You, Irene Dunne, Jodie Foster, Kate Baldwin, King of Siam, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Yul Brynner
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