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'The King and I' at Bankhead in Livermore at 2 p.m. today

Director aims to be true to history -- and Rodgers and Hammerstein

The exotic court of 1862 Siam will be onstage through Aug. 2 with a show at 2 p.m. today when Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre presents "The King and I" in all its richly textured glory at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore.

The 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical hit stars an English widow, Anna Leonowens, who arrives with her young son at the Royal Palace in Bangkok, where the King has summoned her to serve as tutor to his many children and wives. He also wants to improve his image in the West, where he is considered to be a barbarian.

Anna and the King grow, eventually to understand and respect one another, amid beloved musical numbers including "Getting to Know You," "Hello, Young Lovers" and -- the showstopper -- "Shall We Dance?"

The cast and crew of this production are determined to get things right.

"The actual history is different from the romanticized version," said director Carol Hovey. "I've made, with the cast, a very concerted effort to be true to history as well as true to the history of Rodgers and Hammerstein."

Anna was born in India to an Indian mother and a British father who was a private in the military, although she presented herself differently.

"She pretty much concocted her British credentials. She had never been to England before she went to Siam," Hovey said. "She reinvented herself."

But she was a brilliant woman, Hovey added, who spoke five languages. After leaving Siam, Leonowens wrote "The English Governess at the Siamese Court" and lectured extensively on her experiences during her six years there.

"Anna's melodramatic interpretation was very much to please British and American audiences," Hovey said. "I find it important to remain true to who those people were."

Hovey first directed "The King and I" 23 years ago for Pleasanton Playhouse, which later became Tri-Valley Rep, as her master's project at San Francisco State. She has directed many plays through the years, she noted, and said the experience of working with talented casts is always wonderful. With this play, she has the added challenge of a very large cast.

"There are 26 children under the age of 13," she said. "The King actually had 87 children. The number when Anna came on the scene was 67, but she only taught those whose mothers were in royal favor."

Hovey said there was a wonderful turnout for casting from throughout the Bay Area.

"Probably finding the right King and the right Anna were the biggest challenge at the outset," she said. "With them and all of the other characters, I was very fortunate. The King and Anna are wonderful to work with, and they have a great love of their history."

DC Scarpelli plays the King, a role made famous by Yul Brynner on Broadway as well as in the 1956 movie, opposite Deborah Kerr.

"Yul Brynner casts a particularly long shadow over this role, and it can be hard to escape his iconic delivery," Scarpelli said. "And there's also the problem of striking the proper balance between the musical's King, who is one of the great musical comedy characters (though the Thai people view him as an insult and a buffoon), and the historical King, who was a learned, bookish reformer."

Plus, Scarpelli pointed out, he has to keep the role fun for the audience.

He said he has a deathly fear of dancing so was intimidated by the second-act polka, "Shall We Dance?"

"But now, I'm warming up to it," he said last week. "And Rachel Powers (Anna) is such an amazing partner, I actually look forward to the thing. Go figure!"

"Aside from that, I do adore watching Rachel sing her solos," Scarpelli added. "It's not really fair that anyone should get that much beauty and that much talent."

Powers said that the dance scene is her favorite part of the show.

"I love the song, I love the dance, and I love that in this moment, the King and Anna are getting along and enjoying one another," she said.

Powers also finds it exciting to explore Anna's complexity.

"I suppose the greatest challenge for me in playing Anna is knowing when and how to portray her layered emotions to the audience, considering that a proper British lady wouldn't typically show a lot of emotion -- it would remain buried deep inside," Powers said. "Every strong woman has fears and sadness as a result of the challenges faced in life. Anna does her best to hide these feelings and also to teach others some tools in overcoming them.

"She works hard to use these emotions for her benefit. In fact they may be the very root of that which has made her strong," she continued. "I want the audience to know she is afraid at times and sad at times, though she puts on her strong and stubborn face, holding it together like a proper British lady.

"My hope is that I am able to find the right balance in playing her as the strong woman she was and yet show her vulnerability."

Powers also noted the difficulty of wearing a hoop skirt, which she has been donning at rehearsals to become accustomed to moving and sitting in it.

"I'm enjoying playing dress-up, but I'm so grateful we do not have to wear hoop skirts in today's world," Powers said.

Scarpelli has different challenges in playing the king.

"It's pretty impossible to get used to having 50 people drop to their hands and knees the moment they see you," he said.

Shall we dance?

What: "The King and I"

Who: Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre

When: Through Aug. 2; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Bankhead Theater, 2400 First St., Livermore

Tickets: $20-$39. Call 373-6800; go to www.trivalleyrep.org; or visit the theater box office

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