Interviews with Broadway Heayweight, Brian Rivera, and Annalene Beechey from The King and I tour
Brian Rivera (in Bartlett Sher's original Lincoln Centre cast) plays The King of Siam while Darren Lee has a Sept break
The hard-working Darren Lee has taken September off from the UK & Ireland tour of Bartlett Sher’s impressive and lavish production of R&H’s The King and I.
This followed Call the Midwife’s Helen George’s timed departure from the show’s run (…and we’re not here to talk about her high-profile split from Jack Ashton after seven years together).
The role of Anna Lenowens is now played by Annalene Beechey and, Broadway heavyweight, Brian Rivera – who was in Bartlett Sher’s original Lincoln Center Theater cast – takes over as the King of Siam from Darren Lee.
Sardines caught up with the pair during rehearsals…
What first attracted you to the part of Anna?
A.B: “Absolutely everything! Anna has a wonderful journey throughout this show, she’s tough, feisty, funny, warm and believes so passionately in the power of knowledge. She also has the most beautiful songs – vocally and lyrically.”
What do you love about The King and I so much to make you keep returning?
B.R: “It’s a wonderful story that’s based on true events, so it’s connected to some great history. Plus it has some beautiful songs from Rogers and Hammerstein. It’s a beautiful production.”
What were your first thoughts when you were offered the role?
A.B: “I was, and still am, very honoured to play this role. It’s a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical and Bartlett Sher’s Tony Award winning Production is simply beautiful. I was also maybe a little worried about dancing the polka in that huge skirt!”
If you could go back in time and meet the real-life Anna, what would you say to her?
A.B: “I’d tell her how extraordinary she is. A courageous pioneer. And how much I admire her. I’d have questions: How/why did she do it? How frightening it must have been to move herself and her son to another country, speaking another language and adapting to a different culture.”
Has The direction of Bartlett Sher made a big difference to this show? After all you were in the original Lincoln Center Theater cast?
B.R: “Absolutely! He told us on the very first day of rehearsals space, ‘Why do it now; why do it at this moment in time?’ He’s a brilliant director by the way. And the thing he locked onto was from some inspiration that he picked up from an activist who said, ‘The most dangerous thing in the world is a young woman with a book.’ Of course, in our show the young woman with a book is Tuptim, the ingenue. So from that angle we focussed everything on the empowerment of women, and girls… and even being able to read. In that sense it’s avery timely piece indeed.”
There is a real love story at the heart of the musical – what do you think attracts Anna to the King?
A.B: “There is a tremendous amount of respect between Anna and the King, which grows throughout the show. Anna sees in the King, a man who wants to know everything, to be the best that he can be to protect his people, which sparks in Anna a challenge, and a sort of mutual admiration.”
How many Annas does Annalene Beechey make now?
B.R: “Oh my gosh. There’s Kelli, Annalese… Okay, hang on… 1…2, 3…4, 5, 6, 7… I think. Not including this show.”
Who is the best Ha, ha!?
B.R: “Oh, how did I know you are going to say that? Ha, ha. Luckily, it’s impossible to say; it’s a really tough call because they were all amazing performers, every single one. Very talented. Ha, ha!”
The King is a very single-minded character what qualities does Anna have to win him around to her way of thinking?
A.B: ”I’m not sure she ever does! But what she does do is spark even more questions in him. Anna constantly challenges him to look at every angle, and to do the right thing. He was a very progressive King, and she could offer the real knowledge and experience of the western world which she understood would be invaluable to him.”
In lots of ways Anna was a modern woman do you think this is why the story has stood the test of time?
A.B: “Very much so. If you ignore the period costumes and just look at the bare bones of this story, you see a single working mother doing the best she can for her son. She fights for what she believes in, and cares very deeply for the world in which she is preparing her pupils to live.”
Have you always been a Broadway performer?
B.R: “Since 2015. In my career I strive to be as clear in my characters as possible. Sometimes I succeed, ha, ha!”
“That’s eight years, less the pandemic. We’re actually still in the process of bouncing back. It was devastating. Completely devastating. I remember that the three theatres that I worked in the most – and where I’d kind of call home – were at a stage where they would do radio plays and put them online. Luckily, we all scraped by.”
The real King of Siam had eighty-two kids – what do you think of that?
A.B: “Excessive! Two is quite enough for me!!”
What are you doing to prepare for the role?
A.B: “It’s an enormous role requiring physical, vocal and emotional strength. The dialogue is fast-paced with lovely long scenes to get your teeth into, so I’m revising like crazy. But mainly I’m building up my stamina. I run and I do yoga regularly. You need a strong core for the corset and large skirts.”
There’s another’ Brian River’a who has made a few films. That’s not you, is it?
B.R: “No. It’s someone else. For the life of me, I’ve tried to keep us separate but there are only so many emails you can physically send. I would like to direct something in the future though.”
What’s it like to dance in a crinoline?
A.B: “Hard. You stop and it keeps moving. And it’s very heavy, almost twenty kilos in weight!”
What’s your favourite number in the show?
A.B: “Hard to choose. The ballet is extraordinary. The first time I saw the cast perform it in the rehearsal room, I cried. It took my breath away. And still does. It’s a privilege to watch our incredible dancers perform this up close. Out of the songs I sing, I love performing Hello Young Lovers.”
So your big love is theatre it will be fair to say then?
B.R: “Oh yes. I wouldn’t be here today without theatre. Initially, I wasn’t able to see how my fellow students could bring these characters and stories to life so, to be able to do then now – take what someone has written and create a role that people can understand is one of my big dreams and really is one of my goals in life; definitely one of the joys of my career.”
What do you love most about musical theatre?
A.B: “It can communicate on so many levels all at once. Music, drama, dance all colliding in a burst of emotions, and it doesn’t shy away from that. A good musical should take you through it all in one night, the tears and laughter and everything in between. The drama of dialogue is underscored to heighten each emotion, characters sing because words simply aren’t enough and dance because only their bodies can release the feelings they are experiencing. Pure escapism.”
What was your first experience of musical theatre?
A.B: “I saw Phantom of the Opera when I was twelve years old and just knew this was what I wanted to do.”
The UK stops every year in Dec for its pantomime season and Woking is no exception. Is pantomime a complete mystery to you or do you ‘get it’?
B.R: “I’ve seen some Punch and Judy shows back in my hometown, but I didn’t know there was a whole season for it in Britain. That’s great to know, and I am open to all kinds of new experiences.”
What’s the most challenging aspect of touring?
A.B: “Being away from my family. I have a husband and two children, so thank goodness for technology, but as long as I can see them at the weekends, we’re all ok.”
When you’re on tour – what’s the one thing you can’t live without?
A.B: “I hate to admit it, but it’s my phone. Aside from that. Earplugs! And my pillow. I need my sleep.”
Broadway World describes your voice as ‘angelic’ and “‘a pleasure to listen to’. How do you take care of it?
A.B: “That’s very lovely. I look after it. I steam my voice, drink lots of water, wear a lot of scarves in the colder months and try not to eat too much chocolate…!”
How does this part differ from other roles that you’ve played?
A.B: “I’ve never played a mother before actually. I love working with the children on stage, they are just wonderful and all very individual. They’re funny, sweet and full of energy.”
What can audiences expect from the show?
A.B: “Bartlett Sher’s multi–Tony Award winning Lincoln Centre Theatre production is elegant and classy. Broadway star, Darren Lee [when not on holiday – Ed] is reprising his role as the King, having played him in the US. The show has the most glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein score with songs like Whistle A Happy Tune, Getting to Know You, Shall We Dance and so many more. It’s heart wrenching, funny, intimate, passionate and opulent. There is so much to enjoy with this production but at its heart it’s simply an extraordinary true story of the King of Siam and an English schoolteacher.”
Dates and venues still to come:
- PLYMOUTH THEATRE ROYAL 12 SEP 2023 – 16 SEP 2023
- NEW VICTORIA THEATRE WOKING 26 SEP 2023 – 30 SEP 2023
- NEW THEATRE OXFORD 03 OCT 2023 – 07 OCT 2023
- THEATRE ROYAL NOTTINGHAM 17 OCT 2023 – 21 OCT 2023
- HIS MAJESTY’S THEATRE ABERDEEN 24 OCT 2023 – 28 OCT 2023
- Leeds Grand 31 OCT – 4 NOV
- Milton Keynes Theatre 7 – 11 NOV
- Norwich Theatre 14 – 18 NOV
- Cardiff New Theatre 21 – 25 NOV
- Congress Centre Eastbourne 13 – 23 DEC
- The Lowry Salford 9 JAN – 13 JAN 2024
- Dominion Theatre London 20 JAN – 2 MAR 2024