- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 21, 2002

Baayork Lee agrees that she has an improbable name and has led an improbable life, even by show business standards.
The name reflects her background as the daughter of a Cantonese father and an American mother of East Indian descent. Born in New York's Chinatown more than 50 years ago, she was on Broadway at age 5 playing the littlest Siamese princess in the much-acclaimed "The King and I" with Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner.
Many years later, the 4-foot-10-inch dancer-actress was in the original cast of an equally renowned and still current "A Chorus Line." Her role, that of Connie Wong, was based on the life of a petite Asian dancer who aspired to fill the shoes of the elegant ballerina Maria Tallchief. Ms. Lee freely admits that the similarity wasn't a coincidence, but she has no regrets about not ending up in tutus and toe shoes. A self-proclaimed theater gypsy, she isn't one to look back.
"After I decided to stop having a career, I just let things happen," she says with a typically light touch that hides a serious, highly disciplined, multitalented former dancer. "I constantly have to reinvent myself."
Due primarily due to her close association with the late Michael Bennett, director of "A Chorus Line," the bubbly, outgoing Ms. Lee became his assistant and dance captain. Miss Lee has ended up, in her middle years, a much-sought-after director and choreographer who oversees musical productions here and abroad. She has done more than 35 versions of "A Chorus Line" alone and has productions of "Jesus Christ Superstar" opening soon in Budapest and Vienna, Austria.
Ms. Lee has no agent, no pets and seldom sees her Manhattan apartment, although, when home, she visits her family in Chinatown every Saturday for dinner. "I'm so ordinary in Chinatown," she says.
"I only have an answering machine," she laughs during a brief conversation following a recent round-table discussion at Arena Stage about its latest show, a revival of "South Pacific," directed by Molly Smith, Arena's artistic director, and choreographed by Ms. Lee. It was Ms. Smith's first stint directing a musical and Ms. Lee's first time working with the popular lyrics and score created by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The production runs through Feb. 2.
The partnership appears a highly compatible one, judging by remarks exchanged in front of the audience during the evening's discussion billed as "Molly's Salon," open to the public for a modest entry fee. Set designer Kate Edmunds and actress Kate Baldwin, who plays Ensign Nellie Forbush, also were involved in giving patrons an insiders' view of the workings of the show.
Ms. Smith called Ms. Lee "a true child star" (for her earliest work in "King and I" and "Flower Drum Song") and "an American theater icon," citing how it was through her that Mr. Bennett's work endures.
"This is my first experience working with Baayork, and it won't be my last," she added.
Ms. Lee, in turn, provided some sound bites of her own, noting how she had to go on unemployment at age 7 "because I outgrew my costume."
"South Pacific" followed by only a few weeks Ms. Lee's job of staging a concert version of the Hammerstein musical "Carmen Jones" that starred Vanessa Williams with Placido Domingo conducting the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center. Ms. Lee's association with the Washington theater community goes back to the time when she choreographed "Animal Crackers" and "The Cocoanuts" (both directed by former Arena Artistic Director Douglas Wager) and, more recently, as director of "Gypsy" at Signature Theatre. She also has done choreography for several of the Washington Opera's productions and opened musical theater schools in Tokyo and Korea.
Why so many musicals? she is asked.
Because "everybody likes musicals," she replies, but also because, through them, she can "make everybody dance. The music lends itself to movement more than other forms of theater, and this one is so integrated with the book and music."
The Arena's "South Pacific" is the 'dancingest' version ever, with some of the moves straight out of an anthropologist's notebook. "Molly asked me to create a ritual to get the natives dancing," she says, noting that her research covered Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Vietnam and Fiji "because she [Ms. Smith] didn't want a specific island."
The story is told through the eyes of nurse Nellie Forbush, an innocent from Little Rock, Ark., whose world is opening up in a big way with exposure to the customs of an island in the Pacific Ocean where a contingent of the U.S. Navy is stationed during World War II.
The original show, which opened on Broadway in April 1949, didn't have a choreographer. Ms. Lee began her creative task by "listening to the music morning, noon and night to get pictures" that would inspire her work. Three-quarters of the 30-member cast never before had performed in the round, adding to the particular challenge of creating realistic moves that could be viewed in equal measure by everyone in the audience. Ms. Lee was in on the selection of the cast, which included testing as many as 600 hopefuls in New York and 150 in Washington.

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