King and I is a family affair

For the leading players in the Premier Arts production of “The King and I,” playing next weekend at the Elco Theatre, calling the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical a family show definitely has a double meaning,  especially for the man who portrays the extremely prolific King of Siam.   Not only is Curtis Hill, Jr. recreating the role of the autocratic ruler which he played first in the 2000 Elkhart Civic Theatre production, also in this cast are wife Theresa and all five of the Hills’ children: Halle, 14; Mallory, 12; Curtis III, 10;  Bella, 8; and Abraham, 7.

All are among the seemingly endless flow of royal offspring who fill the stage during the famous “March of the Siamese Children,” and several are in the second act ballet “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” with Halle as Topsy. Theresa, no surprise, is one of the King’s wives. All of the youngsters have a surprising amount of theatrical experience, via youth theater programs, and all were definite about wanting to do more. Once the bug bites … For Theresa, however, “This is a one time deal, just because it’s a family affair.”  Her role has in past shows has been to help on a production committee or just wait for the young thespians to finish rehearsal. “I love watching their shows,” she said, noting that her only regret is that being on stage, “I won’t be able to see this one.”  The final weeks before opening have left time for nothing but school (all are honor students and in pep programs), dinner and homework, usually done at the theater. ” We’re used to having mom in the audience,” Halle said. “So this is interesting.” And what’s it like, living with the King?  No problem, according to his kids. “This is kind of his personality,” Halle volunteered. It is a personality that dominated his first royal outing and promises to do the same on the Elco’s much larger stage. Not an easy task in the role so completely associated with the late Yul Brynner, who played it for more than 4,000 performances from 1951 almost until his death in 1985. Hill was, and obviously still is, up to the challenge. “I’ve always been a big Yul Brynner fan,” he said. “Even before ‘The King and I.’ I watched him in ‘The 10 Commandments” and ‘The Magnificent Seven’ and thought he was great.” “I am not a theater guy,” Hill declared, but when he saw the ECT audition notice, “I thought if ever it was the time, this was it.”  Recalling his initial experience at the Bristol Opera House, he  has good memories of that production. “The Civic was a much more intimate crowd,” he said, adding “This big stage is better for ‘The King and I’.” The only drawback has been “I remember things from eight years ago,” he said with a chuckle. “I know the part and I know the show. It’s frustrating for some people.” His job as Elkhart County Prosecutor doesn’t allow much time for extra curricular activities, but “Doing a part in this show is much more fun as community service than sitting on a board or a committee.” Especially when the whole family can have fun with him. His Elco co-star is a young and talented theater veteran, Liberty Morgan Cantzler. As Anna Leonowens, she brings her young son Louis to the court of Siam. In keeping with the familial theme (more than 15 families are among the 118 actors and 40 crew members involved in the production), Louis is played by Liberty’s 9-year-old son, Brayden, who, his mother said quickly, auditioned and got the role all on his own.  “In fact,” she added. “He begged me to audition.”

“He was doing stuff (shows) as a baby,” his mother said of the Pinewood Elementary School pep program student. Like the Hill children, his grades do not suffer because of his theater involvement. Unlike Hill, however, Liberty has always wanted to do theater.  She began here. Her first role, at age 4, was a passenger on the liner American in ECT’s first “Anything Goes.” After high school, she went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, focused on a career in the theater. “I have always wanted to do this,” she said. “There was never a question. I want to do it as much as possible.” She married Sean Cantzler, then a lieutenant in the Navy, with an eye to regional theaters wherever he was stationed. Then Brayden was born and “I wanted to be a mommy,” said the petite blonde. Cantzler left the service and they returned home. After daughter Mady was born, the couple divorced, but theater has always  been Liberty’s through-line.  Now a single mom with a part-time job and going to school full time at Ivy Tech, Liberty’s love of the theater and performing has never wavered. It is a love she has passed on to both her children.  “I know theater helped my brother Seth (Morgan, now working professionally in New York) to focus.” she said. “Brayden is kind antsy. I hoped theater might help him, too. It has.” Next up, a summer production of “Quilters” at Das Dutchman Essenhaus. After that .. anything goes.

“The King and I”   By Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II Presented by Premier Arts and Wachovia Securities Elco Theatre 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students and senior citizens, $10 children to age 10. Call: 293-4469 or visit

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