Shall We Dance? Meet Russell Rinker: Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre’s King in ‘The King and I,’ Now Playing Through Sunday

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s timeless classic, The King and I, boasts one of the most luscious scores of all time. Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre (SSMT) plays through this Sunday. In the third and final part of a series of interviews with the cast members, meet the King (Russell Rinker).

Born and raised in Strasburg, VA, Russell first performed with SSMT at age 9. An actor, musician, and stunt performer, he has spent most of his professional career as a member of the internationally renowned Blue Man Group, performing as a Blue Man for 5 years in Las Vegas, and for the past 3 years touring the U.S. and the world. Other credits include: The Virginia Shakespeare Festival, Wayside Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Los Angeles Opera, Arrested Development, The Tonight Show,  and Shake It Up on the Disney Channel. Russell is an accomplished pianist, and also plays the guitar, violin, mandolin, and drums. He is a certified stage fighter and experienced fight choreographer. He is a graduate of The College of William and Mary, with a double major in Theatre and English.

Russell Rinker.

Russell Rinker.

Diane: How did you hear about SSMT? What brought you to SSMT this summer?

Russell: I have wanted to be an actor for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Strasburg, I remember seeing shows at SSMT, and when the opportunity came to audition I jumped at the chance.  I performed in Oliver! when I was 9, and The Music Man when I was 10. Then in the summer of 2000 I played Dr. Craven in The Secret Garden and Lt. Schrank in West Side Story, as well as choreographing all of the fights for West Side Story, and the knife fight in Oklahoma.  This time around, I was just finishing a two-year North American tour as a Blue Man in Blue Man Group, and I planned to take some time off and spend the summer with my family in Strasburg. I emailed Dr. Thomas Albert (SSMT’s Music Director and Casting Director) and told him I would be in the area and would be interested in performing at SSMT if he had role for me.  He offered me Lancelot/French Taunter/Knight of Ni/Time the Enchanter track in Spamalot, and I was thrilled.

What did you perform in your audition and when did you find out that you had the role?

Having worked at SSMT in the past, I didn’t have to audition. In fact, I was not originally cast in the role of The King. The actor who had agreed to do it months before had to pull out of the production in order to accept a part in a movie. And this was a last minute thing. So about three and half weeks before rehearsals began, Dr. Albert asked if I would be interested in taking on the role of The King, and of course I immediately accepted, (especially since he informed me they were not going to ask me to shave my head!) I was, however, a little intimidated by the role.  Since I had been a Blue Man (a silent character) for so many years, it had been quite a long time since I had done a musical, or even spoken on stage. Coming back to the realm of musical theater via a fun, silly show like Spamalot was a great transition, and very much in line with my personality. But tackling such a grand, iconic role like The King seemed a bit daunting to me. However, I was confident in my abilities and I knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

What drew you to the The King and I? What do you admire or not admire about your character?

I had neither seen nor done this show before, but it’s such a classic piece of American theater.  The story, the music, the lush imagery and exotic setting. I was really excited to be part of this production.

The things I admire about this character are his intelligence, his hunger for knowledge, his work ethic; his openness to change and new ideas–even though these bring about huge challenges he must deal with, both internally and externally. I think he has a deep love for his country and his people, and he desperately wants what’s best for them. He has great pride in himself and his country. He takes his role as leader very seriously. He knows all too well that heavy is the head that wears the crown.  Being King is such a huge responsibility, every decision carries such weight, but ultimately he is doing the very best he can.

On the downside, he is spoiled and self-centered, but then again he IS the King. His subjects call him “The Lord of Light,” which is bound to give ANYONE an inflated self-image. And of course he is sexist and misogynistic, but much of that seems to be a function of the culture and his society at that time. So I don’t really see it as a personal flaw. And besides, he wants to change. So that’s just one issue he must wrestle with during his personal battle between honoring tradition and progressing into modern society.

What are your solos or ‘big numbers’ and what does the audience learn about your character when you sing these songs?

Unfortunately the King doesn’t sing much. He has only one solo number: “A Puzzlement”. It comes early in the show, which I like, because it gives the audience a chance to relate to him, to see his vulnerability. We learn that even though he is the high and mighty King who is supposed to have all the answers, he doesn’t. He’s human, and he finds things confusing and puzzling just like the rest of us do. This troubles him and affects him a great deal. And the song expresses his deep desire to do his best for himself, his people, and his nation.

What have been some of the challenges preparing for your role?

The biggest challenge was the short notice after accepting the role, especially since I was almost immediately rehearsing for Spamalot, then doing performances of Spamalot at night while this show was rehearsing during the day. But then again, that’s summer stock theatre! I was able to do some historical/character research, but it’s such a great meaty role that I would’ve liked to have more time to dig into it. But Carolyn Coulson, the director, is so great, and she really helped me a great deal, focusing more on who the King is as a person–his strengths, weaknesses, and deep humanity. Also my costar Jenna Pinchbeck is wonderful and has helped me immensely throughout this process. The three of us have really enjoyed this theatrical journey together. And now that the show has opened and I’m not involved with the next SSMT production, I’ve got my days free. So I plan to spend some of that time doing further research and exploration, helping the performances grow and deepen throughout the course of the run.

Anna (Jenna Pinchbeck) and The King (Russell Rinker). Photo by Alan Lehman.

Anna (Jenna Pinchbeck) and The King (Russell Rinker). Photo by Alan Lehman.

What do you love most about The King and I?

As I said before, it’s just a classic piece of American theater.  The story, the music, it’s all just so lush and rich and beautiful. And even though it touches on very deep and heavy issues, it’s also light, lovely, sweet, and fun.

What character that you are not playing is your favorite and what song that you are not singing is your favorite, and why?

My favorite part of the show in which I’m not involved is “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet. I have always loved stylized performances, be it modern dance, ballet, opera, Kabuki or Noh theatre, clown theatre, avant-garde, etc. I really like how this piece infuses dance and movement with music, classic story-telling, mask-work, traditional instrumentation, puppetry, etc. Our choreographer, Edward Carignan II, has done an amazing job with it, and our ensemble, featuring some truly incredible dancers, executes it brilliantly. During the tech runs and dress rehearsals I would sneak out into the house and watch it. (I mean hey, the King is supposed to be in the audience anyway, right?) I really enjoy it so much and I think it’s such a treat for our audience to get to see a performance of this nature, stuck right in the middle of a traditional musical theater show.

What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing The King and I?

I want them to feel moved by the story, to feel like we did justice to the material and we were able to sweep them away to a beautiful place. And I want them to have experienced the roller coaster ride that live theater can be—how it can make you laugh, cry, think deeply, and swell with joy, excitement, and so many other emotions, all in the course of a few hours.

Director Carolyn Coulson rehearses with Anna (Jenna Pinchbeck) and The King (Russell Rinker).

Director Carolyn Coulson rehearses with Anna (Jenna Pinchbeck) and The King (Russell Rinker).

What are you doing next on the stage after The King and I closes?

After being on tour for two years, then doing two amazing (and exhausting) productions with SSMT, I’ll be feeling pretty good, professionally speaking. So I plan to dig in and fulfill myself on a personal level. Hopefully I will actually get to relax and spend some time with my parents, my sister, my five nieces and nephews, and aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., who all live here in the area. The Shenandoah Valley is so beautiful, and I love being here, so I intend to take advantage of that by doing some hiking, canoeing, and camping too. I’m going to take a week with my dad to do a Habitat for Humanity project in Moore, Oklahoma, helping to rebuild a community that was wiped out by tornadoes last year. And then I need to figure out the next move in my career. I had originally planned to return to Los Angeles, where I was based for a few years prior to going on tour. However, I’m now considering making the jump to New York City. I lived there for only a few months over ten years ago while I was training for Blue Man Group, but I don’t think that was enough for me. I have lots of friends there, so I’ll be visiting the city this summer to see if that’s the next step.

The King and I plays  July 9-20, 2014 at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, performing at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre-1460 University Drive, in Winchester, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (540) 665-4569, or (877) 580-8025.

LINKS

‘The King and I’ Opens This Wednesday at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre-Cast Interviews Part 1 by Diane Jackson Schnoor.

“Shall We Dance? “Meet Jenna Pinchbeck-Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre’s Anna in ‘The King and I’ by Diane Jackson Schnoor.

The review on DCMetroTheaterArts of ‘The King and I’ at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre by Diane Jackson Schnoor.

 

 

 

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