Jay Espano lived in Thailand and used those experiences for Theater Works’ production of “The King and I.”
Espano helped the cast understand the culture of the country, the location of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which opens Friday at the Peoria Center for the Performing Arts.
“It really was important that everyone grasped the culture and to be as authentic as possible to get it right on stage,” Espano said.
He thanked the cast and crew for “being so open and inquistive so we could make it even better.”
The Phillipines native said he’s excited to take on the role made famous by Yul Brenner, who portrayed the King of Siam on Broadway and in the 1956 film. But don’t expect an impersonation from Espano, who has never seen the movie.
“It’s kind of funny because I’ve haven’t watched it, and that’s a lot of pressure,” said Espano. “At the end of the day, I’m doing my version.”
The story is based on the memoirs of Anna Lenowens, who became a governess to the children of the King of Siam, now known as Thailand, in the 1860s. It deals with how the British schoolteacher tries to help modernize the country and the development of her relationship with the King.
Famous songs include “Getting to Know You,” “I Have Dreamed” and “Shall We Dance?”
The musical debuted on Broadway in 1951 and won five Tony Awards. In addition, a number of revivals have appeared, including one with Lou Diamond Phillips.
Many also remember the film adaptation with Deborah Kerr and Brenner, who won an Oscar for his role as the King and a Tony on Broadway.
“I’m passionate about this show because the music is great and the story is the classic East-meets-West plot,“ he said. “Everyone in the whole family can enjoy this.”
Espano has portrayed the role before and jumped at the opportunity to do it again.
The professional actor did a lot of stage and television work in the Phillipines before moving to Chicago.
He has performed in more than 60 plays, guest starred on soaps and sitcoms in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines and appeared in films and commercials there. Espano learned of Theater Works’ production through a Google search and flew out to audition for the show.
Athena Hunting, who directs “The King and I,” said Espano is perfect in the role.
“He brings such a passion and authenticity to the role, along with a wonderful work ethic, fine acting skills and an enigmatic presence,” Hunting said.
Hunting also said she appreciates having Espano as a part of the cast.
“Our cast, particularly our teenagers, come up to another level when they’re on stage with him, and that’s been great to watch,” she said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “The King and I.”
WHERE: Theater Works, Peoria Center for the Performing Arts, 8355 W. Peoria Ave., Peoria.
WHEN: Friday through Oct. 16.
TICKETS: $35, adults; $25, students.
INFO: Call the box office at 815-1791 or www.theaterworks.org.