When The King and I first opened on Broadway in 1951, it quickly became one of the most popular and beloved musicals of all time. The fifth collaboration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, The King and I was a hit from the day it premiered. The musical won Tony Awards for Best Musical and for the two stars, Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner.
Although Lawrence was the star at the time, the show provided an enduring legacy for Brynner who played the role of the King of Siam on and off for the remainder of his life. His portrayal of the role in the 1956 film won him an Academy Award, and he even took the part to television for a series, although it ran only 13 episodes.
Star took long way around to the stage
The popular show visits the historic Embassy Theatre next week, bringing with it a fresh young cast of actors. One of those performers, Deanna Choi, fills the role of Lady Thiang, the chief wife of the King. She took a particularly circuitous route to a career in theater, beginning with an unlikely performance in her home’s laundry room.
“I was seven years old when The Little Mermaid came out, and I decided to try singing her big song in the laundry room,” Choi said in an interview with Whatzup. “And it sounded pretty good so I thought maybe I’d like to keep doing that.”
She pursued theater in high school in her native Portland, Ore., and moved on to study music at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. But that first effort didn’t last long.
“I was having trouble finding my way,” Choi said. “So I decided to leave college for about a decade and went into accounting and tax preparation. I didn’t go back to college until I was about 27 to finish my music degree. But even then I stayed in accounting, though I did community theater here and there to keep my chops and was able to improve my singing and acting.”
Choi finally resolved to take her chance and begin auditioning for shows, and to her surprise and delight, quickly found success with this production of The King and I. The show’s national tour began in November, and Choi is very much enjoying her first experience on the road.
“It’s really great to be part of a national tour,” she said. “It’s all I ever hoped it would be. You get to see parts of America you might never otherwise see, and we have a cast and crew of 63 people who are all happy to be working in the theater arts so we all have the same goal. It’s a really enriching experience. Everyone is happy to be there so it’s a good morale. A good experience.”
Lively Dance got Lively response
Audience response to the show has been gratifying as well, and Choi shared a recent experience the cast enjoyed in Pennsylvania.
“Last week we were in Scranton, and when ‘Shall We Dance’ began, the audience erupted in applause, and the applause continued through the entire song,” she said. “We hadn’t had a reaction quite like that before, but that audience knew the show so well that they responded very strongly to it. This production is so great, and there’s so much talent in the cast. Nobody disappoints. And the dance in ‘Shall We Dance’ is a polka, so it’s a very lively dance, and here Anna is wearing a 40-pound dress with a 21-steel-bone bodice, but it’s gorgeous, and she carries it so well. The chemistry between them is amazing.”
Choi’s opportunity to play Lady Thiang is also much appreciated, and Choi thinks her untraditional career path helped her understand and better portray her character.
“This role means a lot to me, and I think my non-linear route to this really helped me grow. I was also an office manager for a while, and all of my life experiences brought me to this role as head wife who is in charge of thousands of people at the palace.
“I think you need to bring a certain amount of wisdom and experience to this role. The women in this show are really very strong, and our director Bartlett Sher has really emphasized for us that the women are important because they’re shaping these children. They have a quiet voice, but it’s set in 1860, and you see what women were able to accomplish in this country where they didn’t have much voice but were still able to accomplish so much.
“Rodgers and Hammerstein were really very forward thinking in many ways, but they were never in your face. They approached it from the heart.”
Making her Father proud
Visiting Fort Wayne on a national tour of The King and I the same week she used to help clients mail off their tax forms speaks to the new life path Choi has chosen, and it’s one she plans to continue.
“I think I have proved to myself that it’s time to make my dreams come true,” Choi said. “I’m ready to pursue some more female roles and to do more singing, which is what I’m most interested in. But I think my time in accounting was important and helped me to know that I was able to take care of myself and not have to depend on anyone else.
“When my father saw me on stage, I don’t think he was ever more happy or proud. I think he knows that it’s what makes me happy, and he’s glad to know that I’m making my dreams come true. Parents do worry and want their kids to be secure, but I think in the end, they just want them to be happy.”
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July 11 • Foellinger Theatre