July 01--Ellis Williams has taken an unusual route to royalty.
Williams is playing the lead role at Shawnee Playhouse in "The King and I," which opened Friday and closes Aug. 24. The role of the 1860s Siamese monarch in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was immortalized by Yul Brynner, first in the original 1951 Broadway production, then in the 1956 film version that brought Brynner an Oscar, and subsequently in stage revivals starring Brynner in the 1970s-80s.
A busy season
"The King and I" is one of six shows presented on the summer stage, which goes into full swing Wednesday when the curtain is raised for the children's theater production of "Beauty and the Beast Jr."
The season started with "I Love You; You're Perfect, Now Change," which opened May 24 and closes Sept. 1.
"All Shook Up," a jukebox musical of Elvis Presley's hits, opened on June 12 and runs through Aug. 30. "The Emperor's New Clothes" runs June 20-Aug. 23.
Most cast members auditioned in early spring in New York for playhouse Executive Director Midge McClosky and her staff.
Williams was working at that time as owner since 2003 of Capitol Auto Parts in East Bangor, a full-service automotive and auto recycling center, but he also has had a longstanding musical background.
"An acquaintance who had an interest in another role told me they were looking for a king, so I sent Midge an email with my background and then sent in a tape from my home studio," Williams said.
'The perfect voice'
McClosky heard the tape and was awestruck.
"He has the perfect voice for the part," she said, which includes commanding speaking and singing roles. "He has the most beautiful voice, a strong voice on stage."
Ellis got the part and even shaved his head like Brynner. He downloaded the film that he had watched as a youngster.
"Just about everybody has seen that movie at some time," he said. And he immersed himself in the role.
"It's just the resonant speaking voice that he has," said Sara Ferguson, who is directing the production. "Ellis came in like gangbusters on this. He had a really good idea of the characterization and knew the story and what he had to do. It's not an easy role and he did not need much directing, just finetuning things."
Williams, 48, has portrayed a bald-headed character before in Slate Belt community theater productions, playing Daddy Warbucks in "Annie." He also played Fagin in "Oliver!" and Albert Peterson in "Bye Bye Birdie."
His singing career goes back to when he was an Army musician stationed in San Francisco in the 1980s where he sang, arranged and composed musical scores.
In recent years, he's sung in a church choir and with a group about 50 strong in the Bangor Elks shows.
So when one of his regular customers at his auto shop -- Becky Haskell, Shawnee Playhouse director of sales and marketing -- heard about the decision on the regal role, she was pleasantly shocked.
"Because my workers were involved in other things, I wound up putting in an engine in Becky Haskell's car myself," he said, smiling.
"I actually had no idea," Haskell said of Williams winning the role. "It shows you may know someone in one capacity and may not realize what the rest of that person's life entails.
"He's amazing. He has special talents and abilities, and I'm so proud of him. It's interesting to see him in this different light."
Williams said it's different from his prior experiences where rehearsals are staggered over three months leading up to the show whereas this production has only two weeks of intense preparation.
He's managed to juggle that while managing his business, which he sometimes turns over to his son, Chris. He said mastering the king's unique accent was his toughest challenge.
Williams said he throws himself into the mood, "which goes from a happy high to dropping to an intense fury. And then I die.
"I love going 180 degrees," Williams said. "Hopefully I can bring the emotion I need to the role. It's hard because the character I am portraying is not even close to the character I am and am at home."
Performing with the professional cast also has been uplifting.
"There's nothing I like better than playing against somebody who does an outstanding job, and this is an outstanding cast," Williams said.
Ferguson said the "iconic" production spans generations but has a tragic ending uncharacteristic of musicals.
The story centers around an Englishwoman who is commissioned to teach the royal children. She confronts the king about his many wives and the mandate that they remain submissive.
As she prepares to leave Siam, the dying king decides to change the rules of protocol in his country.
Among the songs in the show are "I Whistle A Happy Tune," "Hello Young Lovers" and "Getting to Know You."
"In a sense it's difficult because it's the iconic Yul Brynner and the things that people expect, but I bring in my own version," he said. Williams says in many ways, the audience will get the kingly presence they expect.
Williams said it has been so intense and focused for him that he sometimes brings the character home in his lifestyle.
"It's almost a bit of an obsession. It's difficult to get it out of my mind," he said. Even the children in the cast still address him off set as "father."
"I understand that and hope their parents don't mind," Williams said.
(c)2013 the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa.
Visit the Pocono Record, Stroudsburg, Pa. at http://www.poconorecord.com/
Distributed by MCT Information Services
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
Most Popular Stories
- Updates on Everglades' Stranded Pilot Whales
- Stolen Cobalt-60 Recovered in Mexico
- Hezbollah Chief's Assassination Claimed by Sunni Group
- Wind Power and Wildlife Can Coexist
- Sarmiento to Handle Greeley Latin Ops
- Ford Mustang Still Packs Power
- Allstate Seeks to Invest in Minority Firms
- First-time Jobless Claims Drop Below 300,000
- White House Pushes to Extend Unemployment Benefits
- Elizabeth Warren Ends 2016 Presidential Rumors