When the National Tour of Wicked stops at The Segerstrom Center For The Arts, the four-week engagement will be a homecoming for several cast members, including ensemble member Lesley McKinnell, who understudies both Glinda and Nessarose. The Orange County native somehow found time during her busy schedule to sit down for a StageSceneLA interview!

Can you talk a bit about growing up in Southern California and how you first got started in musical theater?
I was born and raised in the Fullerton/Placentia area. I guess you could say I was a home town kind of girl, at least until I moved to New York after I graduated college. I attended El Dorado High School, where I was in all sorts of performing related activities—except for cheerleading.  That would have been bad news!  [Lesley laughs.] I was really involved in theater, vocal ensemble, orchestra, and Mock Trial.  

How soon did you realize that you wanted your life to be in musical theater?

I really knew I wanted to make musical theater my career path by my junior year of high school, so I went to Cal State Fullerton for my degree, which included two years of jurying before one could actually get accepted into the BFA program.  

Can you explain what you mean by jurying?

Of course. The jurying process is a bit arduous and confusing, but basically one starts out as a freshman taking classes like voice and movement, etc.  Then in your sophomore year you start taking the acting and musical theater courses. At least that’s how it was when I started in 2004. Yikes! These days I think there are acting classes for freshmen students as well. But the idea is that freshmen year you take the time to figure out if this is really what you want to pursue, and those who decide it’s not for them usually don’t continue to the sophomore year.

This is fascinating! What comes next?

At the end of first semester sophomore year is when the first jury occurs. You have an acting jury which consists of a scene with a partner, and a musical theater jury, which at this point is only one song.  After this jury, they make the cut down to around twenty students for second semester.  You spend the second semester in the next level of classes, and by the end of that semester it’s time for the big Kahuna of jurying.  

And how does that work?

The last jury determines the ten students who will be in the next year’s BFA class, and it consists of an acting jury of a partnered scene once again, a musical theater jury in which you have to perform two and up to three full songs, and then a final dance jury which includes tap, ballet, and jazz routines. It’s quite intense. 

I’ll say!  After such an exhausting process, you must have been thrilled to be accepted into the BFA program!

When I opened my acceptance letter, I thought I was going pass out, but I felt so grateful and honored to have been accepted, and even more excited to get to work with my friends! What a cool, awesome moment. But regardless if one “makes the program,” one can still be successful either way. It’s what you make of what you’re given in both paths that truly determines what kind of performer you’ll continue to be.

Cal State Fullerton has a reputation of one of the country’s finest training grounds for theater and musical theater, but I know a lot of Southern Californians head back east just for the East Coast experience.

I must admit, I wasn’t too sure about going to university right around where I grew up, but it ended up being the best thing that could have happened.  

Why’s that?

I was so close to L.A. and accessible to auditions, and I learned a lot of valuable lessons during school. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really get better than growing up in sunny Southern California!   
Lesley (in green) with her 2008 CSUF BFA class/castmates in City of Angels, and as Allie Earp in I Married Wyatt Earp.

What would you say is your favorite role or production before joining the Wicked tour?
My favorite role in college was playing Alaura Kingsley in City of Angels. Clearly age inappropriate for a senior in college, [Lesley smiles] but just the best and most delightful show to be a part of!  Another favorite show was doing the West Coast Premiere of I Married Wyatt Earp.  CSUF did the staged reading my junior year, and I got to play the role of Allie Earp again my senior year. It was a great experience putting a new musical for the first time! A very close third was actually playing the role of June in Marisol. It was a really magical show to do, and it was always really fun doing productions with my friends. 
Lesley in “that blue dress” as Glinda, and surrounded by castmates in Glinda’s green dress.

You’re understudying Glinda and Nessarose. Have you been able to go on in either of the roles? 
I go on for Glinda every now and then depending on the main Glinda’s vacations, sick days, etc. Nessa not as much, since it is a bit less demanding. Doing eight shows a week can get extremely rough, especially when different cities have such varying climates, altitudes, humidity and dryness levels to which the main principal has to constantly acclimate.  So that’s when we, the understudies, have to be ready to throw on that blue dress and go for it!  

How do you keep yourself ready to take center stage not knowing when—or if—you’ll get the call?

Fortunately we have very consistent understudy rehearsals to keep us prepped on the roles.
What’s been the high spot of the tour so far?
I was on tour with the First National production for a year, and my favorite city during that time was Seattle, Washington. 

Why’s that?

I love the Pacific Northwest and I don’t mind the rain, so the accessibility of metropolitan versus natural areas like the ocean and mountains was just amazing. 

Any other cities you’ve loved?

My favorite city on Tour 2—excluding Orange County, of course!—has been Madison, Wisconsin. We were there during the autumn, my favorite season, and the colors of the leaves and the atmosphere of the university there were just delightful. 
To what do you attribute the phenomenal success of Wicked?

Many things, I’m sure! It has the well-rounded aspects that all major successful musicals have: story, spectacle, vocal pyrotechnics, etc.  But most importantly, it is relatable.  Everyone can identify with being the “green girl”, an outcast, not accepted. I think the plight of the witches’ story line is truly what gives the show its heart. 

Lesley with her dad at age 2

You must have seen a lot of shows at the Orange County Performing Arts Center (now the Segerstrom Center For The Arts) as a Cal State Fullerton student. How does it feel to perform in a major National Tour so close to where you learned your craft?

Actually, I literally grew up at OCPAC.  My father has been a cellist in the Pacific Symphony for about twenty-five years since it began, and I was always attending his concerts, ballets, pops shows, etc.  My mom and I would go see the musicals there as well, sometimes an opera or two. My favorite show I ever saw at OCPAC—it’ll always be OCPAC to me—was Ragtime.  I always attribute that show to being the primal influence for me ultimately wanting to be a performer.  I listened to that album daily for probably about a year… and still do sometimes! 

Any other OCPAC performances you remember well?

I also performed in Segerstrom Hall with the Pacific Chorale Children’s Chorus when I was younger, and actually took acting classes through South Coast Repertory. I did a staged reading at SCR the summer before I got Wicked, and it was lovely experience! 
In other words, doing Wicked in Costa Mesa will be a tour highlight for you!

Absolutely.  Being able to perform at a theater where I grew up seeing shows, performing in concerts, seeing concerts, and admiring my dad, is beyond incredible for me. It feels so full circle and I hope it’s the first of many times that I have the privilege of coming back!
Any advice you can give to current CSUF students about to embark on a professional career?

I give the same advice to anyone who asks, no matter what university or where one is in their career, and that is to always keep going.  I always say that you’re never done learning, even if you have graduated college. Taking class and voice lessons is crucial for upkeep and also continual improvement.  If you truly love what you do (and I do), you will keep persevering to continue your individual career path.

Thanks so much Lesley! I’m really looking forward to being there for your opening night, and saying Hi after the show!

Lesley’s Wicked bio: Lesley joins the company from the Emerald City Tour, where she understudied Nessarose.  Les Miserables—Hollywood Bowl, Wizard Of Oz, City Of Angels.  BFA from CSUF. Thanks to creative team, family, and friends!  “For Danny.”  


Click here to order tickets to see Wicked at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts, March 9 through April 3.


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