Singer-actor DeAnna Choi and drama critic Basil Considine met two decades ago in a high school theatre program. Yesterday – twenty years after their last conversation – the theatre industry brought them together again: she as a leading actor in the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, and he as a critic and journalist covering the tour.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical The King and I, an adaptation of the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, premiered on Broadway in 1951. An immediate hit, the story of an English governess teaching the children of the King of Thailand ran on Broadway for a then-sensational 1,246 performances. The show has been a perpetual favorite ever since, as has the other Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about a governess teaching children, The Sound of Music, which came five years later.)
The national tour of The King and I comes to Chattanooga’s Tivoli Theatre later this month for a 3-day run, December 18-20. In the show, the governess Anna (played by Angela Baumgardner) is caught up in the modernization of the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand), with cultural clashes and more as Eastern and Western value systems collide. At the heart of the swirling currents is the Lady Thiang (played by DeAnna Choi), the king’s chief wife and head of the imperial household. DeAnna Choi spoke with Basil Considine about actors’ journeys, playing dream roles, and the enchantment of theatre.
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It’s been twenty years since we last spoke; the last time we were onstage together, I was announcing your death. Now you’re playing a leading character on a Broadway national tour!
It’s amazing – and a dream come true!
Where am I catching you, geographically speaking?
I’m in Sarasota, Florida. We performed last night and have our final performance tonight. We have one travel day tomorrow (meaning we’re not performing), but the day after we’ll be in Knoxville for about three days. On Monday, we get a Golden Day, meaning that we don’t have to travel or sing. We really enjoy those, because we don’t get many days off!
Where did you go right after high school?
I went to the Oberlin Conservatory for a year, but the opera program wasn’t quite right for me. I’m a classically trained singer, yes, but with more of a musical theater bent. So I transferred to the college, then moved to New York City because my sister was there.
Where is your “home base” when not on tour?
New York. I’ve lived there for about 17 years, doing accounting and bookkeeping and tax prep – my “survival job”.
When I decided that I was going to study music again, I left New York for a few years and went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I performed at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge while I was there, and also at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, and did Michael Ching’s a cappella version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – it was very exciting. Then I came back to New York, did some work in community theatre to hone my skills in leading roles, and then was cast in a leading role for the King and I tour as Lady Thiang. It really is a dream come true.
Do you remember how you first encountered The King and I?
It was actually the first musical that I ever saw, when I was five. My two older sisters were performing it at their middle school, and I remember clearly the ballet sequence from the [show-within-the-show] performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was the most captivating sequence I’d ever seen, and to this day I think it’s my favorite part of the show.
A lot of King and I productions stick to the original Jerome Robbins choreography, which is a masterpiece – there’s something that’s so exquisite there. We’ve kept about 95% of the original choreography in the national tour of The King and I. Since 2018 is the centennial of Jerome Robbins’ birth, it’s so great to present his work in this year.
Tell me about the audition/casting process that led to your joining the tour.
It was a very exciting process. I had about 5 different auditions – first I sang for the casting director, Jason Styres, and he asked me to come back and work with him further. My next round was singing for the tour director Shelley Butler and associate director Sari Ketter (she worked with Bartlett Sher on the original Lincoln Center production that spawned the tour). They gave me more input, and I got a chance to fine-tune the direction that they wanted the character to go in, and I advanced to the musical director round.
The next round, I got to sing for no one other than Bartlett Sher and Ted Sperling, who are legends on Broadway. About a week later, I got a call from the casting director, saying that they’d like to offer me the role. So it was about 5 different auditions over a month and a half period – very exciting, intense, and invigorating.
Was that more or less what you were expecting for the auditions, or a surprise?
I imagined it would be something like this for a role of this scale. It was a test of determination and focus – every time, you have to deliver just as good (if not better) than what you did before. It’s also an opportunity to show the directors that you can deliver a show 8 times a week – that you’re not a one-hit wonder who falls apart later.
During the audition process, were you exclusively working with the tour’s creative team, or doing coaching on the side as well?
I was working with a vocal coach and an acting coach. Kimberly Vaughan in New York is my acting coach, and Tom Burke is my vocal coach. Both were instrumental in helping me hone the character development that I presented to the directors. Without that, I don’t think I would have been as confident in booking the role, and I think it helped me get it.
Do you want me to leave that out?
No, I think everyone needs a coach – I don’t know anyone who’s made it this far without a mentor by your side. Obviously, some of it was my raw talent, too, but because of the coaches I was able to present the best of myself.
So when you found out that you were cast, did you call your sisters and let them know that they didn’t stick with The King and I long enough?
I called them right away – they were totally happy for me. One of my sisters is a professional violinist, so she’s got it made. My other sister’s a professional real estate broker, so also very successful. They were so happy for me to have achieved this dream. It can seem like you’re chasing butterflies in this field, so it’s so special when you catch them. It was a great phone call to make.
At this stage in your career, are you actively studying with a voice teacher?
I study with Tom Burke – he does everything online, through the Internet, which is very innovative and new. I think it’s where a lot of our world is going; he also has group classes, too. I think this platform works for me because I’m already an advanced singer. I also study on my own – I read some vocal pedagogy material to try and understand for myself how my voice works.
What does your pre-performance warmup routine look like?
I spend about 30 minutes earlier in the day (before the performance) to warm up the voice doing different exercises, then I’ll go through material from the show so that I have my material and intentions in mind. This helps me be very present on stage – that’s very important to me. It’s good to jog that memory and live that world and character before you step onstage.
What did you audition with?
I was prepared to do the Tuptim songs when I was young and earmarked as a soprano (I probably still am), so I prepared those – and they’re gorgeous – and I actually did play the roll when I was younger. However, I was always enchanted by the song “Something Wonderful”, which is more of a mezzo piece, and I learned it and started singing it years back. Luckily, I knew the song before auditioning, and actually used it when auditioning.
Sometimes, they advise you not to audition with songs from the show, but I think it benefitted me. I don’t think you’ll see something written like that today – with the score behind it, the chords, so much color that brings out the regalness and Asian influences…so beautiful.
There’s certainly no one alive writing music quite like Rodgers and Hammerstein. The King and I seems just as popular 64 years later.
I’m so glad that we keep on reviving their music. It’s absolutely beautiful.
Since you’ve checked off doing one childhood dream role, what’s next on your list of classic musical theatre roles that you’d love to sing?
My next pick would be to do a version of Carousel as Nettie, and sing “You’ll never walk alone” and “June is busting out all over”. I think I’ve grown into the Mother Earth roles. I told our Tuptim in this show, Paulina Yeung, that I had a dream that we’ll be in a production of Carousel together next. It’d be perfect! Now that nontraditional casting is being widely accepted, it would be a great thing to bring to audiences.
With the acknowledgment that something is always different each performance in live theatre, how “fixed” is your portrayal of Lady Thiang in each performance? You’re not only performing many times each week, but also onstage for much of the show.
I find great joy in being able to be onstage so much of the time. There are many times when other characters are singing and I’m telling my story through my presence and my reactions to what they’re doing.
I don’t change my portrayal – my character arc and my character’s through-line. I had a really strong idea going into the rehearsal process about what my portrayal was, then my director helped fine-tune the things she wanted to draw out of my character arc. She helped me with my movement and staging and the emphasis, but from a night to night it stays pretty much on the same path. Do I find different colors with that? Yes. As I feel how my other leading characters are feeling in the moment, I may react to that. It never gets boring for me, and sometimes the quiet moments are just as powerful.
How large is the touring company?
We have about 65 cast and crew, altogether.
Do you spend a lot of time together on the road?
I’m only my first month into this tour, so I’ve been spending my time getting acclimated and finding my gym time in the morning, then we’ll go out and have meals together. Our cast is really warm and welcoming – everyone loves each other, so we’ll go to the museum together or a movie, then go shopping. I know some of the cast are exchanging dance and voice lessons. Everyone’s trying to make the most of it.
Can you tell me about a favorite moment in the show?
It’s definitely the ballet – it’s just stunning, and I can’t say enough about it. This is what makes it a show for everyone – for all ages. I get especially excited for younger audiences to see it, because they can see the magic of theatre.
I first saw the ballet in The King and I when I was 5 years old, and I’ve never forgotten it. Our dancers are also incredibly skilled and diverse – I think we have one of the most international casts: people from Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Thailand…all over Asia. We’re doing a show that’s about bridging cultural gaps, and everyone’s from a completely different country. That just all makes the show so real.