Olney Theatre Center has just announced an extended run for its holiday production of The King and I. Keith Loria talks with two of the reasons why audiences have so embraced this musical: Paolo Montalban and YoonJeong Seong.
The first time Paolo Montalban takes the stage as the titular King of Siam in Olney Theatre Center’s The King and I, his forceful voice and gruff stature present a commanding presence that anyone who knows the musical expects, but his interpretation of the part takes a surprising detour with a rash of self-doubt and unambiguous sexual tension between he and his leading lady, Eileen Ward’s strong-willed school teacher Anna.
He credits the slight shift in the King’s personality to director Mark Waldrop.
“I’m always really big into looking at the character and I think Mark has done an incredible job putting fresh eyes and keen eyes to the piece,” Montalban says. “I find he changed not just my character, but themes in the play that I haven’t seen since the first time I did this in 1995. It’s a real testament to his vision and talent.”
Montalban also feels that by the end of the show, the different character traits helps the King realize his greatest work was helping move his country forward so they could take care of themselves without him.
“It’s interesting, Prior to this show, I had only really focused on the absolute monarch version of the King, and what Mark and I crafted for this particular production, is not just a King who is curious about the world, but one who wants everything to be a learning experience for his son and his people, as well as himself,” Montalban says. “By taking this angle, you really see a King who wants to leave something greater than himself behind.”
Montalban is no stranger to the role, having portrayed the imposing ruler two years ago in a production in Hawaii, and he’s also performed other characters in the musical at various times throughout his career, including making his Broadway debut in the ensemble in 1996.
“One of my favorite moments was walking out of the theater on opening night and my folks were outside waiting on the sidewalk,” he says. “I was in the ensemble and did practically nothing in the show—although it was still an honor—and my mom had tears streaming down her face.”
Other Broadway credits would come, including playing Manjiro in Pacific Overtures in 2004 and working in his first play, Breakfast at Tiffany’s last year.
“There’s a duality to Broadway. You get on the stage, look onto the audience and it seems a lot smaller than you thought it would be in your head, but there’s nothing like the actual experience of performing on Broadway,” he says. “I have worked in some fantastic regional theatres and been on some amazing national tours all over the country, but it must be the spirits of those who came before us that makes a quantifiable change that occurs when you are on a Broadway stage.”
Born in the Philippines, and raised in the New York/New Jersey area, Montalban first developed the performing bug in high school.
“The best part of it was I was already doing multicultural casting,” the now 40-year-old actor says. “I got to play Curly in Oklahoma, and you wouldn’t think that would ever happen, but it’s increasingly becoming more popular and accepted by the audiences now.”
He headed to Rutgers University with designs of becoming a pediatric cardiologist, hoping to be the world’s first singing heart surgeon. Halfway through, he was burned out and started taking acting and music classes and did plays again. The rest is history.
Montalban has been a fixture in theatre and on the screen for the past 15 years, most notably playing Prince Christopher opposite Brandy in the 1997 TV movie, Cinderella and Kung Lao in the Mortal Kombat TV show.
Waldrop learned about Montalban from a fellow acting acquaintance who had once worked with the actor on another production of King and I, and Montalban was excited to do his first production at Olney.
Montalban is being housed in nearby Gaithersburg, Md., along with Eymard Cabling, who plays Lun Tha, and the two recently shared Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Cabbling’s family, who are from the area. He’s making plenty of friends and enjoying working with his cast.
“It’s a little new to me to be working with a cast where so many people are local and so many people are housed in different places, so we only get to see each other in rehearsals and performances,” he says. “I really look forward to going to work every day and playing with these people on stage. I especially enjoy working with Eileen. She’s one of those actresses who is willing to go with anything and who makes a long run a joyous experience.”
Playing the role of Tuptim in the production is YoonJeong Seong, another New York-based actor whose dramatic operatic voice has earned raves from those who have seen the show.
It’s a role that YoonJeong is very familiar with, having played the Burmese concubine sent to the King as a gift eight times over the years.
“The main thing about this role is even though I have played it many times, I am always finding new things and ideas about the character,” she says. “I feel like it’s always new and I have a great time with her.”
Her approach for the Olney show is to tell more of the story that Tuptim is going through emotionally, giving up her life for her love.
“This production has been so wonderful and Mark knows I have done the part before, but he’s given me a lot of new ideas to make it more real,” she says. “I really wanted to inspire people who have been through this sort of love or had a difficult moment like this.”
YoonJeong is originally from South Korea and studied classical voice in her country, before heading to the U.S. to study opera in New York. After she received her Master’s degree, she auditioned for a musical instead of opera and nabbed her first role at the Gateway Playhouse. She fell in love with musicals and soon set her sights on a career in the theatre.
Both actors were surprised to learn of the large Asian community that Olney possesses, which totals close to 10 percent according to the last U.S. Census.
YoonJeong has talked with some in the Asian community who have come to see the show, and is looking forward to connecting with others as best she can, possibly even singing at an event for a local Philippine group. Meanwhile, Montalban is finding his own connections.
“The Korean Church is just a half mile away, and I didn’t realize it was such a huge Asian population until I went there, thinking it was a Catholic church,” Montalban says. “The Philippine Organization of Maryland wants to come and have a powwow with me and that will add to my exposure.”