Kevin Gray will never forget his inaugural entrance onto the Muny stage. "The first time I ever performed in Forest Park was in The King and I back in 1989," he recalls. "Stacy Keach was the King, and I was Lun Tha [the doomed young lover who sings "We Kiss in a Shadow"]. The dressing rooms are left stage, but my first entrance was stage right. So I started crossing over, and I was walking and walking and walking. I thought to myself, 'I'm lost, what's happened here?'
"It was not dark yet, kind of twilight, so I was looking for any kind of light. I finally saw a shaft of light. I headed for it, and suddenly found myself standing upstage center, not far from a tree — and it wasn't my scene! I immediately leapt offstage in horror, but I was wearing a solid gold costume, so I'm sure somebody saw me."
Lots more people will see Gray next week when he returns to St. Louis, this time as the imperious King of Siam himself. Gray has filled the years since 1989 growing into commanding figures. His Broadway performances include the title role in The Phantom of the Opera and Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar; he last visited St. Louis in 2006 as the treacherous Scar in The Lion King. But perhaps he's best known as the King. Gray first assumed the throne when he replaced Lou Diamond Phillips in a 1996 Broadway production, then continued with the role for a year in England.
Next week's appearance is the result of serendipity. Earlier this year he happened to meet director Rob Ruggiero at a dinner in Connecticut with mutual friends. Ruggiero mentioned that he was going to direct The King and I at the Muny and asked for casting advice. Gray replied, "Do yourself a favor. With such a short rehearsal period, don't get two actors who have never done the show before. Either find a King who's done it or an Anna who's done it. And if it's the King, make sure he's an actor who understands that it's not his show."
Ruggiero got Gray.
"One of the important ingredients in The King and I is to understand whose play it is, and when," Gray elaborates. "It really is Mrs. Anna's play, virtually throughout. So for me as an actor, the evening is less about what I need from Mrs. Anna and more about what I might be able to give her. The deepest emotions in The King and I are all unspoken. More than any other musical I can think of, The King and I is about what you mean rather than what you say."
A case in point: the "Shall We Dance" sequence between Anna and the King in Act Two. "I never worry about the dance," Gray says, "because it is a perfect moment. By the time Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote The King and I, they had perfected the seamless integration of music and action. They were past the point of, here's a scene, and then, clunk, clunk, clunk, here's a song. When the music for 'Shall We Dance' begins, all I have to do is be in the scene and work off my partner. When we do that, the polka is as magical a moment for us onstage as it is for the audience."
Gray concedes that when he first started to play the King, "I was very much hampered by the mythology" of the role's creator, Yul Brynner. "But I came to realize that if you can't get that out of your head as the actor, there's no way the audience can get it out of theirs." Now he is his own man, his own King — even his own teacher. In his classes at the Hartt School, the performing arts conservatory at the University of Hartford, Gray emphasizes individuality.
"When students leave my classroom," he says, "I want them to have a sense of their own true voices. If you don't believe in your own work, you can't really make a mark on the world. Everyone else that's out there, we have them already. We don't need another one. I want my students to find a point of view. Otherwise we'll have a world where no one ever turns the page."
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