It’s a magic elixir, acclaim is, and from the first sip of it, Jose Llana was made tipsy with delight. His initial brush with renown happened in first grade, at Garfield Elementary School on Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield, where the teachers chose him to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for the school, to commemorate Presidents’ Day.
His glockenspiel-accompanied rendition — his voice was in the soprano range at the time — went over so well that huzzahs erupted up and down Garfield’s hallowed hallways. Okay, that may be laying it on a bit thick. In any case, though, for Llana, whose surname is pronounced “Yana,” the positive feedback made for an affirmation he vividly recalls and still relishes more than three decades later.
“I remember walking around school that day so proudly,” the 41-year-old Llana said, over lunch. “It was my first taste of celebrity for my singing.”
More days like it would ensue, in halls far from Springfield — on Broadway, in theaters across the country and lately, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, where Llana is concluding a month-long visit as the King of Siam in the touring version of the latest Tony-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I.” He co-stars with Laura Michelle Kelly, the actress playing Anna Leonowens, perhaps best known for her Olivier Award-winning turn in the title role in “Mary Poppins” on the London stage.
Llana, who was born in Manila, grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, has enjoyed a rich and sustained musical-theater career in New York, with a passel of choice roles to his credit. In Central Park in 1997, he was Gabey, a lovestruck sailor on shore leave in a revival of Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s “On the Town,” and he was the uber-nerdy Boy Scout Chip Tolentino in William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which started off-Broadway in 2005 and then moved to Broadway. And at Manhattan’s Public Theater in 2013, he originated the part of Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos in David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s seriocomic musical portrait of Imelda Marcos, “Here Lies Love.”
But it was an earlier Tony-winning revival of “The King and I,” more than 20 years ago, that firmed up Llana’s trajectory. Determined to study voice — despite his worried parents’ initial reservations — he chose a conservatory, the well-regarded Manhattan School of Music, over liberal arts colleges. And when word reached him there that director Christopher Renshaw was staging a Broadway revival of the 1951 musical, based on the book “Anna and the King of Siam,” he auditioned. The job he won was playing Lun Tha, clandestine lover of the King’s Burmese concubine Tuptim, who together sing two of the most liquidly romantic songs Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II ever wrote, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.”
He was a teenager at the time, a college freshman with a sultry baritone and very little idea of the challenge he was facing. To bolster his training, the production, in the run-up to performances, sent him to the widely admired voice teacher, Joan Lader, whose many Broadway pupils included the revival’s star, Donna Murphy.
“They weren’t sure whether I was up to the rigors of eight shows a week,” Llana said, explaining that Lader was more than a vocal coach to him; she jolted a rather cocky lad into adulthood, made him understand the magnitude of the responsibilities he would be expected to shoulder. “Joan was like my other mom,” the actor added. “ ‘You need to grow up,’ ” she said. ‘This is a job in a Broadway show.’ It helped that she was so honest with me. She was the first person to put me in my place.”
“On the Town” followed hard on the heels of a long run in that 1990s “King and I” revival, and so did an early lesson in theater ups and downs. When “On the Town,” a production directed by George Wolfe that received mixed reviews in the park, moved to Broadway, his part was recast. “It was really humiliating,” he remembered. The show, however, closed on Broadway after only 69 performances, and in any event, Llana recovered, segueing into work in other musicals, among them, “Rent,” in which for a spell he took over the pivotal role of Angel, the lover of Tom Collins who dies of AIDS.
Coming back to “The King and I” so many years later, as a Broadway replacement for Ken Watanabe, who originated the role in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater, and now, on the national tour, has taken Llana full circle. And in moving up in rank to the role of King, his perspective on what he does and how he does it has changed. For a vocalist of Llana’s caliber, the part is not taxing. The King’s only solo comes in Act 1’s “A Puzzlement,” which many actors tend to speak-sing.
In the current production, directed by Bartlett Sher, Llana delivers a more robustly tuneful version of the song, but his performance seems particularly well-engineered for the script’s more comic aspects.
“I always thought of myself as a singer,” he said. “Now, this part has beefed up my confidence as an actor. For the vast majority of my career, I’ve booked the jobs because I was the better singer. It’s amazing how you grow as an actor when you don’t have your voice to hide behind.”
The King and I, music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Bartlett Sher. $49-$159. Through Sunday at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.