A group of drama students at Oak Hill School is putting on a play fit for a king — literally. If all goes as planned, 13 middle and high school students under the instruction of theater teacher Kitsann Means will travel to Thailand on Nov. 19 to perform at a birthday ceremony in honor of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turns 84 on Dec. 5. The beloved king, the world’s longest-serving monarch, has been on the throne since 1946 — and his birthday is a national holiday celebrated over many weeks each year.
So how does a private school in Eugene get selected to perform for a foreign monarch?
Means said Oak Hill has had Thai students attend in years past, and they occasionally have held reunions or organized visits to the Oak Hill campus adjacent to Lane Community College. On one such visit two years ago, Means found herself mentally composing a song about the Thai guests’ aged monarch, and lightly suggested putting on a play for him.
“I found myself saying, ‘What’s the theater like in Thailand?’ ” Means said. “I began thinking of a song asking what all (the king) has seen in his 84 years.”
Some of those visitors had ties to the Thai government, and Means’ idea was apparently met with the approval of Thai royalty because she was invited to bring a show to Thailand last year. Her class was unable to go, however, because of civil unrest rocking Thailand at the time.
Flooding may stall trip
This year’s plans to visit could also be scuttled — but for an entirely different reason. Much of Thailand right now, including Bangkok, is experiencing severe flooding.
In the event they can’t travel in two weeks, Means said the students might stage local versions of their play — and use the proceeds as a fundraiser to support a future trip to Thailand, possibly in February. Oak Hill needs about $4,000 to fully fund the trip for all its students — and would love to raise even more money to help Thai flood victims.
The theme of the musical focuses on a village and its attempts to find a beloved king a birthday present while also teaching a message about recycling and environmentalism. Means said she chose an environmental theme because of the Thai king’s long-standing support for progressive farming techniques and other environmental causes.
But that’s not the only way that his majesty has influenced the production.
While Oak Hill students and parents wrote most of the play’s music and instrumentation, the king also got in his two cents. It turns out he is a big blues fan who also plays the saxophone. He wrote the lyrics to a piece called “We Got Those Hungry Men’s Blues,” which is sung in the play in a big-city alley scene. Other numbers in the show include what seems like a Rodgers and Hammerstein-inspired “Oklahoma!”-esque opening number, a Cirque Du Soleil-inspired clown dream sequence, and even a rap song promoting recycling.
If the show draws inspiration from popular American musicals, there’s at least one obvious choice that’s off limits. Though set there, “The King and I” is banned in Thailand because of its negative portrayal of King Mongut, a member of the same royal family as King Bhumibol.
Means said dress and dance moves in the show also are subject to censorship because of issues of modesty and respect for the king.
Despite such restrictions and the potential flood danger, the students involved can’t wait to get — and give — the royal treatment.