Some Broadway stars cut their teeth in regional theater, or in off-off Broadway shows. But Eden Espinosa, who stars as Elphaba, Wicked Witch of the West -- a.k.a. the “Green Girl” -- in “Wicked,” at the Pantages Theatre, got her start doing shows at Disneyland.
This is off-Broadway -- way off Broadway.
The musical is a prequel to “The Wizard of Oz” that imagines the childhood friendship of Elphaba, the green-skinned outcast with magical powers, and the bouncy and popular Galinda, who will grow up to be Glinda, the Good Witch.
Pull back the curtain on the life of Espinosa, 29, and you won’t find the great and powerful Oz, but the O.C. And for a kid growing up in Orange and Anaheim -- to paraphrase a certain girl from Kansas with a yappy dog and a penchant for stealing shoes -- there’s no place like Disneyland.
For Espinosa, performing at the amusement park was a family affair: An uncle had a role in the Kids of the Kingdom ensemble, and a cousin once portrayed Minnie Mouse. Even from the beginning, Espinosa was the lucky girl who got to go backstage and see inner workings of the Magic Kingdom. “There were people there that were still working in entertainment and performing when I started working here,” she says. “That was really cool.”
Espinosa attended Anaheim’s Canyon High School, where she played Maria in “West Side Story” and Laurey in “Oklahoma.” But, as someone who had little patience for academe and longed to jump into professional performing, she found her high school and college of the performing arts was Disneyland.
At 17, Espinosa got her first Disneyland job as a caroler in the Christmas Fantasy Parade. Her parents, Eddie and Elsie of Anaheim, both public-school teachers, had to get a special permit for her to perform, since she was still a minor. Later, she played Pocahontas, and Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” -- and, perhaps less notably, Gypsy No. 4 in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
The actress admits that working at Disneyland was not always a walk in the theme park, so to speak. “It’s rough; it’s five or six shows a day. And if you were in an outdoor theater, sometimes you had special ‘Code 90' shows, which meant that you had a modified show because it was so hot. The costumes are heavy, and you’re running around.”
There were also strict appearance guidelines, according to Disney casting director Dana White, a former colleague of Espinosa’s. The park required that tattoos not be visible, that men’s hair be no longer than the nape of the neck and, for all, a generally tidy appearance.
Still, Espinosa adds, “Maybe because of my childhood there, it’s always been special -- just seeing the little kids react to your character.”
It was at Disneyland, Espinosa says, that she developed the strength and discipline necessary to carry her through eight belting performances of “Wicked” each week. That includes always being the first to arrive at the theater and the last to leave, because of the 25 minutes it takes to put on the green makeup and about the same amount of time to scrub it off.
“It prepared me in more ways than one, stamina and work ethic especially,” she says. “They run a tight ship here, and they have someone watching you every single performance, taking notes.”
Maybe that’s why two Wicked Witches have come from the West, via Disneyland: The current Broadway Elphaba, Stephanie J. Block, is also from Orange County and got her start at the theme park. “If they needed a singing Belle, Mary Poppins or Little Mermaid, I was your girl,” Block jokes.
During those same years, on breaks from Disneyland, Espinosa also performed in shows at Universal Studios Hollywood, including a stint in “Spider-Man Rocks” and as a sub in “Beetlejuice’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Graveyard Revue.”
The Universal Studios experience was a little looser, she says. In those shows, there were no animated characters to compare to: “You didn’t have to sing it like the character did in the movie. You could sing it how you wanted to, sing it different every single time if you wanted to,” she says. “And it was fun, you are wearing sexy little costumes or monster makeup for the ‘Beetlejuice’ show. I had the time of my life working there.”
Espinosa was performing in “Spider-Man Rocks” in 2002 when she got the call to audition for the new musical “Brooklyn.” She moved to New York for the workshop production but paid her dues working at the Gap and as a coat-checker for about a year before “Brooklyn” had its premiere production in Denver before heading to Broadway.
The odd-job experience made Espinosa even more appreciative of her local theme parks. “In L.A., there’s so much more opportunity than in New York. There’s Disneyland, Universal, industrials, cover bands. In New York, it’s waitressing or Broadway.”
Critics trashed “Brooklyn” during its short run (October 2004 to June 2005). “When you walk out of a show humming the costumes, you know you’re in trouble,” wrote Clive Barnes of the New York Post. But critics uniformly praised the vocal abilities of Espinosa and costar Ramona Keller.
Between the Denver and Broadway productions, Espinosa joined the original company of “Wicked” as a standby, and, after “Brooklyn,” she returned to portray Elphaba in San Francisco and on Broadway before coming to the Pantages.
Espinosa met Block while at Disneyland, but the two became close friends after Espinosa moved to New York to join what Block refers to as “the Elphaba club.”
“It’s kind of like a sisterhood -- there’s not that many of us. They tend to move us around and reuse us,” Espinosa says. “It’s nice to touch base with people who are your friends, or if somebody is going back into the show after being away, it’s: ‘All right, girl, are you ready to get back into the green?’ ”
On a recent Monday -- her only day off from “Wicked” -- Espinosa paid a visit to her old stomping grounds, its Dickensian holiday decorations sparkling incongruously in the Southern California sun.
One might think that, sans the green makeup, as well as the green nail polish she strips off once a week, Espinosa could browse the souvenirs at the Emporium shop on Main Street without drawing any attention. Not so. Almost immediately upon her arrival, a woman in a “Wicked” T-shirt recognized Espinosa and bounced over to say a breathless, hello. “Just here for the day?” the fan burbled.
Espinosa -- with a graciousness born of years of greeting children after Disneyland performances, as well as the usual gaggle of girls waiting at the stage door after “Wicked” -- smiled and said yes, not mentioning that she was returning to the park as a veteran of its performing stages.
Like her character in “Wicked,” Espinosa is calm, poised and well-spoken, a marked contrast to the chatty, effervescent Galinda. She’s always been the mature type, her father says of his daughter, who joined her musically inclined parents in church plays and productions as a child.
Though not one to jump up and down, Espinosa observes her surroundings with a quiet pleasure and flings her arms wide for hugs when she runs into old friends on the tech crew at the outdoor Fantasyland Theater, where preschool princesses in pink gowns and cardboard crowns execute lopsided pirouettes as they wait for the show.
Of all the areas at Disneyland, it is perhaps Fantasyland that appeals most to the little kids, with gentle rides and wandering characters from Disney movies. But even today, Espinosa says that one Fantasyland ride remains her favorite: Peter Pan’s Flight. “You really felt like you were in that pirate ship, sailing over London,” she says dreamily.
Espinosa leaves the Los Angeles cast of “Wicked” at the end of this month. She’s not sure what’s next. “I could do this show forever, but it’s time for me to see what’s out there,” she says. “I’m going to stay in L.A. for a while and hopefully take advantage of the exposure that the show has brought me.
“I couldn’t find a better showcase for: ‘Hi, West Coast -- here I am!’ ”
Where: Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Additional matinees 2 p.m. Dec. 27 and Feb. 21. No performances Dec.25.
Price: $35 to $98, lottery tickets $25
Contact: (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-7878, www.ticketmaster.com