BWW Interview: Living in the Moment with Kavin Panmeechao of the KING AND I National Tour
As the 2017-2018 Broadway in Orlando series get ushered in by the biggest hurricane ever, I had a chance to chat with Kavin Panmeechao of KING AND I about the show. Kavin ironically is trapped in the "Happiest Place on Earth," so he will get to experience the excitement that is Hurricane Irma prior to taking to the stage. It's funny I usually start my conversations about the weather and this time it was actually substantial.
Kavin plays Lun Tha, who is Tuptim's secret lover. Tuptim is of course a young slave girl brought to the King of Siam as a gift from the king of Burma. Lun Tha escorts her to the Siamese king's court. The pair hide their love, until Anna finds out and Tuptim and Lun Tha go on the run. Aside from Anna and the king, this is the secondary love plot that creates tension and pity in Act II of KING AND I. While Lun Tha is not the maIn Focus, he is a scholar who has to go through serious emotions.
"Every day is different," Kavin describes when asked how he taps into the emotional role he has to take. "This is easier for me now that I'm older. I am able to invest myself in the circumstances of the story. I can see myself in that situation having a little bit more life to me."
Kavin goes on to describe his amazing scene partner, Manna Nichols who plays Tuptim. "She gives me a lot, so I am able to receive a lot and give a lot in return. She's amazing and for me that really helps."
KING AND I debuted on Broadway in 1951 and since that time this show has continued to be a favorite. I asked Kavin what he thinks make this show still relevant today.
"I think the most relevant point is that disenfranchisement of women still occurs in society and the larger world society," he says. "It's unfortunately still prevalent and it's insidious. It may not be overt like in highly patriarchal societies. But all over the world you have women who can't be educated, forced into marriage, desexualized, and even shown by the lower number of women in positions of higher leadership in the corporate and government world."
"The second biggest takeaway for me is that the King and Anna really treat each other as equals and try to work together towards a common goal. This is especially relevant in a partisan society as we find ourselves today."
While there are great relevant themes in KING AND I, the musical, which is based on a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, is set in Siam during the 1860s. Anna is a British schoolteacher hired by the king to modernize his country. Director, Bartlett Sher wanted the focus of this production to be about the plight of women.
"[Sher] wanted to give a view of the social and political situation of the time," Kavin says as he recalls the early rehearsal process. "He also wanted to empower the women, so when the King and Anna fight, they fight as equals. It's about two different cultural norms negotiating for what they think is normal. From that point he wanted to talk about how women function in this patriarchal society. There is one woman who fights the system, one woman who chooses to run away, one who is complacent in the system. It's less about a western woman coming to this kingdom to educate and moreso about the two cultures meeting and negotiating between the cultures and the overall plight of the women within this culture."
Lun Tha does not have a lot written in the stage notes, so in preparation Kavin read the Margaret Landon's novel. In "Anna and the King of Siam" Lun Tha is a monk and does not have a relationship with Tuptim.
"It was hard to know where to start, but once I started it sent me down a rabbit hole," Kavin describes. "I read a lot about polygamous marriage in Siam at the time the story takes place. I read about the political conflicts during this time period too. It gave me a context of what this gift (Tuptim) meant to the political peace that is tenuous between Siam and Burma and how dangerous it is to love this woman and try to love her openly. It's literally an act of treason that undermines the political stability after Siam and Burma just ended a war that lasted for 150 years. For him to love her and to choose the personal over the political is huge and it must mean that he has an enormous amount of love for this woman."
"For me the story is close to my heart. I am a Thai person. The show being set in Siam is very emotional."
Education is a huge theme in KING AND I. Kavin grew up in Los Angeles and got his start as a child actor in film and television. It wasn't until Kavin became involved in community theater that he became interested in musical theater. After completing undergrad at UCLA and earning and MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design, Kavin had the goal of making it to Broadway. "Now it's where the interesting stories are and I try to go towards that."
Kavin has played a variety of stage roles. When asked which was his favorite he describes two. "My favorite overall is Chip from SPELLING BEE because it's different every day. I couldn't leave unhappy. It's a fun silly character. My second favorite was Paul from CHORUS LINE. The role I never thought I ever play, but was on my bucket list. Paul just has a fragility and tenacity to him."
I asked what he's learned from his career thus far. "I think the biggest takeaway specifically is to allow myself to fail. What that means is that I continue to try. Not everything you do will be what you define as success," he says. "Allow yourself to fail with grace, dignity, and humor so you can make different and interesting choices."
Along with a stellar cast, the national tour has a bunch of young actors too. While Lun Tha does not interact with them on stage. He hangs out with them backstage. "I know what it's like to be in a long gig as a young kids," he recalls. "At one point, my set life was three months. I understand what it feels like to be like for them. They're awesome kids."
I asked what advice he has for those wishing to pursue the arts as a career. "It's a hard business and it will ask you to be many different things," Kavin advises. "Know yourself and know what you do best and be confident in that. Be kind - it goes a long way. Be sure to find joy in the process. Train train train and never stop learning. I've learned something new every day while watching the show from the wings. Be a sponge."
Even though Irma has delayed the start of KING AND I, it appears that the show will go on later in the week. Kavin is making the best of this situation while stuck at Disney, but hopes to make it to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter later this week. "I have my wand and Hufflepuff robe. I'm ready to go!"
KING AND I plays at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts WEDNESDAY, September 13 - 17th. Note that the Tuesday performance has been canceled due to Hurricane Irma. For ticket exchange information visit https://www.drphillipscenter.org/weather. All other performances are expected to go on as normal. For tickets and more information visit www.drphillipscenter.org.
Photo credit: Production photos of the touring company of Rodgers + Hammerstein's The King and I, photos by Matthew Murphy