In 2000, 7-year-old Katheryne Penny accompanied her parents to the La Jolla Playhouse to take in her first musical. She had no idea how large the moment would loom in her future.
“That’s what solidified my want to be on Broadway,” said Penny of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which went on to snag the 2002 Tony Award for best musical. It had such an impact on Penny, she begged her parents to take her a second time, on Broadway, then successfully lobbied La Jolla High School to stage it as her senior play in 2011.
Weirdly enough, Penny had to return to La Jolla from Manhattan — where she currently resides in what she swears is a 250-square-foot apartment — for her first real shot at the Great White Way (and a bigger apartment). Now 25, she has been tapped to sing, dance and act in the ensemble of “Diana.”
Running Feb. 19 to March 31 in the Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre, “Diana” has more heat than any Playhouse production since 2004’s “Jersey Boys.” Starring British actress Jeanna de Waal — who originated the title role in a 2017 developmental staging at Vassar College — the musical is being brought to life by the Tony-winning “Memphis” creative team of composer/Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan and lyricist Joe DiPietro. Playhouse artistic director and 2017 Tony-winner Christopher Ashley, who also helmed “Memphis,” directs.
And if all that weren’t enough to make its Broadway debut a fait accompli, the musical’s story is one the world already knows and loves.
“It feels amazing,” Penny said during a break in rehearsals outside the venue. “It feels kind of surreal, and sometimes I forget how special it is to be a part of it.”Penny described the show as “epic” and its dancing and singing as “Olympic-level.” Of de Waal, she said: “I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Her acting is so grounded and comes from such a real place, I think the real Princess Diana would have signed off on her.”
Penny said her agent got her an appointment at one of “Diana’s” New York casting calls.
“This choreography is so fun — this ‘80s-inspired, hard-hitting hip-hop jazz type of thing — and that is just my style,” Penny said. “So it was hard, but I feel like I had the background to put style on top of it and have fun with it.”
Diana isn’t the first princess Penny will support on stage. After graduating from UCLA in 2015, Penny performed in the ensemble of “Frozen” at Disney’s California Adventure.
“I never thought of it that way,” she said. “I guess I had previous experience!”
Penny couldn’t identify which characters she will play in “Diana” — there are several, she said — because the musical is still in workshop and some of those characters may get written out or changed. However, she did say that one currently has “a featured moment in the opening of the show.” And she described the ensemble characters in general as “kind of like manifestations of Diana’s inner turmoil or joy.”
As for any death scene, she said: “People ask about that all the time, and it is addressed, but it’s not milked — which actually, I think, makes it even more emotional.”
Penny doesn’t remember when Princess Dianna died, by the way. Because she was 4 years old.
“But later on, I remember seeing her big, long wedding dress that went on forever and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a real live princess,’” she said.
How hard is Penny hoping to keep her role when the show has its inevitable Broadway debut?
“I mean, you know the answer to that,” she replied. “But I am just so happy to be here, and I’m trying not to think about that, because that’s not in my control.”
IF YOU GO: Some tickets are still available for “Diana,” running Feb. 19 to March 31 at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. Call (858) 550-1010 or visit lajollaplayhouse.org/show/diana