On the opening show of the extended run of “The King and I” in Newport Theater, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Nonie Buencamino, who respectively play lead characters Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut, reveal that they were—gasp—still “winging it.”
Which is forgivable, because that show was only their fourth run with the whole ensemble. The two had barely a month to prepare for the production’s extended run. Menchu got the call to play Anna in November; Nonie, December—so most of their rehearsals they spent just by themselves.
“[Nonie’s] first night,” recalls Menchu, “was his first time in costume. It was that hectic! It was such an adrenaline rush.”
There was also the matter of their chemistry, but that wasn’t a struggle for the two veterans, who have known each other from way back. Menchu’s strong, determined and controlling Anna, who unsettles the traditional, stubborn and impulsive King Mongkut, is likewise “thrown out of whack” when she starts to fall in love with him.
Nonie’s King, on the other hand, has to come to grips with learning new things that breaks his idea of tradition.
“[Building chemistry] is very easy with Menchu,” says Nonie with a teasing smile. “We don’t ‘work’ on it, it’s just there, because we’re both very makulit—with our characters and the logic of the behavior of the characters. We discuss a lot why we do this and that, acting and reacting.”
“Both Nonie and I play off each other,” Menchu adds. “Whatever he throws me, I throw back (and vice versa). And that’s so important—to create rapport. Every day we’re still discovering.”
They make it a point to hash out their performances: What they did, what they could do in the next show, what they liked and didn’t like. They also play up the love angle.
“I get a lot of feedback that [the audience] loves our dynamic, that they get kilig,” says Menchu.
Menchu is more familiar with the play, having played Tuptim and understudied as Anna in her 20s. She finds that playing Anna is “a breath of fresh air,” since she isn’t as difficult as other characters Menchu has played.
On the other hand, it is the first time for Nonie to play King Mongkut—but it was a role predicted over a decade ago by Zenaida “Bibot” Amador, founder of Repertory Philippines. He was starring in “La Cage Aux Folles,” his first major role with Rep, and was extremely nervous, which was affecting his performance.
“During the company call, Zenaida said, ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know that you could play the king in ‘The King and I’?’ recalls Nonie.
Nonie says since the role is new to him, he has more freedom to make the character his own. He has trained himself to stretch his voice, to make it rounder and fuller (but not necessarily deep), since the King should have a big voice.
He finds that the appeal of Mongkut is that he is very human; there is a struggle between cultures, between sticking to tradition and trying something new.
Nonie juggles his time between “The King and I” and his teleserye stints. Menchu is working on the play full-time.
The play received “passionate” direction from Freddie Santos, who won an Aliw Award for Best Director for the play. Santos was Menchu’s first teacher when she joined Rep in 1978.
“He has high taste for beauty,” says Nonie. “It pushed me to try to meet his standards. He’s very generous with praise.”
Save for some stage blocking, there is virtually no difference between the first and extended runs of “The King and I.” Bo Cerrudo and Sheila Valderamma still alternate as King Mongkut and Anna.
Of course, Nonie and Menchu have put their own flavor on their Anna and the King. “As an actor, you should make the character a mix of you and that role,” Nonie says.
Menchu, who sees Anna as a strong woman, gives her an equally strong singing voice.
“[In musical theater], you should go beyond having a beautiful voice. Your song is your dialogue, and it moves the story—so can you move your audience along with you?”
“The King and I” runs until May in Newport Performing Arts Theater, Resorts World Manila, Pasay City. Shows are on Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m.