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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 22, 2018

Love at first sight for ‘King and I’ actress

By Diana Nollen, The Gazette | Oct 06, 2017

Heather Botts has been whistling a happy tune ever since she saw the 2015 Broadway revival of “The King and I.” And now she’s living her dream.

The day after opening in “Dr. Zhivago” on Broadway, she scooted a mile or so up to Lincoln Center to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s classic musical unfold in all its shimmering glory.

“I fell in love with the show when I watched it. I was so emotional through the production, because it’s so beautiful. I remember thinking, ‘I want to be a part of it; I want to be a part of this masterpiece,’ and it’s so funny then, that almost a year and a half later, I would be launching the first national tour as the standby of Anna,” she said by phone from a tour stop in Memphis.

The Walla Walla, Wash., native, now based in Manhattan, won’t be on standby when the show comes to Hancher. She’ll step into Anna’s hoop skirts and iconic songs for all six performances Tuesday (10/10) to Oct. 14 in Iowa City.

She’s played the lead role about 30 times since the tour began in November 2016. This time, she’ll be in the spotlight while lead actress Laura Michelle Kelly honors a commitment made before the tour was booked.

When Botts isn’t playing Anna onstage, she’s standing in the wings watching the show; studying it every week; and singing through it every day, so she can go on at a moment’s notice in case of illness, injury and vacation or time-off days.

“I was thrilled to learn that I was going to be playing Anna in Iowa City,” Botts said. “It was amazing when Bart (director Bartlett Sher) said I could do it. It’s like a dream — it is a dream. I have to pinch myself.”

The Tony-winning production debuted on Broadway in 1951 with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in the title roles, which in subsequent years have been played by Sandy Duncan, Celeste Holm, Angela Lansbury, Hayley Mills, Marie Osmond, Kelli O’Hara and Stefanie Powers, among the many Annas, and Daniel Dae Kim, Darren McGavin, Rudolf Nureyev, Lou Diamond Phillips and Ken Watanabe as the King. Jose Llana is reprising his Broadway starring role for the national tour.

The tale is derived from the memoirs of British teacher Anna Leonowens, a widowed mother who traveled with her young son to Siam in the 1860s, to bring Western knowledge to the royal household. Issues raised around songs serious and whimsical — from “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Getting to Know You” to “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “Something Wonderful” — still are relevant.

“It is so poignant and it resonates with today’s audience more than ever,” Botts said. “The musical tells the story of the relationship between the King of Siam and Anna — it’s obviously an unconventional and tempestuous relationship. Anna’s brought in to help educate his wives and his children, because they’re dealing with the possibility of being colonized by another country, and he’s terrified of that happening.

“What’s even more amazing, is he beat the British from colonizing his country, and I think that she had a huge impact over the five year she was there.

“It speaks so much to freedoms that we need to protect even today, how many years later, and our rights as women, with all the stuff that’s going on today in the news. There’s so much every day, it’s overwhelming... That woman had gumption, and she was really modern in her own thinking about how the world really should look.”

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