A life of preparation for 'Wicked'

For Lesley McKinnell, whose childhood was filled with the sights and sounds of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, being "Wicked" has paid off.

Now in her early 20s, McKinnell has translated her experiences both on- and off-stage at the center, now known as the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, into a successful musical theater career.

She has spent more than two years performing and understudying in the two national tours of "Wicked," a sort of prequel to "The Wizard of Oz." It tells the stories of the misunderstood — and very green — Elphaba, the future Wicked Witch of the West, and pretty, popular Galinda Upland, who goes on to become Glinda, the Good Witch.

"It's a big Broadway smash musical," McKinnell said. "If you want to have an amazing, entertaining evening, and if you love 'The Wizard of Oz,' you will love it for their inside jokes and moments. But if you don't know 'The Wizard of Oz,' you can also enjoy it because it stands on its own. It's about two friends, and it's about acceptance. And there's a green girl."

McKinnell performs in the ensemble, and is one of two understudies for Galinda/Glinda; she goes onstage in the role when the main actress takes a personal day or is sick. She also understudies for Nessarose. Performing in locales like Albuquerque, McKinnell noted, was especially rough for the principal actors due to its dry climate; high altitude also can take a toll.

"As an understudy, you definitely have to be solid it the role," she said. "You always have to be on your toes. I've been on the road for a long, long time, but they really take care of you. They provide a trunk that they travel for you, and I've sort of made myself a home life in there, with olive oil and a pan. We actually get to settle into each city, as opposed to living out of a suitcase. I always manage to unpack. There's really not a better tour contract. I feel really, really blessed to be on the two 'Wicked' tours, because it's been an awesome thing to see the United States for your job."

McKinnell admitted that she was neutral about "Wicked" before auditioning for it.

"I never even thought of 'Wicked' as a show I would be in, when I first started college and the show came out," she said. "I'm a Rogers and Hammerstein person. It's so funny; I grew up obsessed with 'The Wizard of Oz.' My grandmother would literally punish me when I was in trouble by not letting me watch 'Wizard of Oz' or 'Mary Poppins.' So the 'Wizard of Oz' theme is very strong in my life. Now that I know ['Wicked'] so intimately, I love listening to the different musical licks. The 'Yellow Brick Road' song is in the Governor's mansion scene, and the scarecrow scene for Fiyero is like, [sings] 'I would dance and be merry/Life would be a ding-a-derry/If I only had a brain.'

"It seems like shows are either really successful or they're really artistic, and I think that this show has both of it. People really go nuts for this show. There's sort of a festival aspect in the vocal pyrotechnics, and I always say that it's relatable. That's what a show comes down to ultimately; people either relate to the popular girl or the green girl."

McKinnell said a career in performing arts was a natural choice for her, due to growing up with a professional musician for a father and music teacher for a mother.

"My dad's really the only one [in the family] that has a career in it," she said. "He's a cellist with the Pacific Symphony. I grew up around OCPAC and all that jazz. My dad's mother grew up in England, and was a church organist since she was 12; she was a really big influence for my dad. All of my family is musical. I think it's definitely influenced me; it's something I always did, and loved to do."

McKinnell started off as a generalist, studying piano for awhile and then taking up the cello; she grew up performing in Lori Loftus' Southern California Children's Chorus, where she performed around the world at venues like Carnegie Hall and the Vatican — as well as with the Pacific Chorale at Segerstrom Hall. She later became involved in South Coast Repertory's youth program.

"It was a really cool experience, so I guess I grew up singing and doing instrumental stuff, but I always knew that I enjoyed singing more," McKinnell said. "I always went to see my dad's performances, and my mom and I always went to see the musicals. 'Ragtime' was the musical that I really first really distinctly remembered seeing and saying, 'I want to do this.'"

By the end of high school she was applying to colleges with musical theater programs, and finally chose to go on to the well-esteemed, juried bachelor's of fine arts program at Cal State Fullerton.

"I definitely had a great experience there," McKinnell said. "It had its ups and downs like any other university, but I'm so glad that I went. Getting a degree was very important to me."

After graduating, McKinnell moved to New York and became a part of its thriving musical theater community.

McKinnell said she felt blessed that her background prepared her so well for her future career, but said that getting a BFA doesn't guarantee an entrée into such a competitive field.

"Not everyone can get into it; I just happened to," she said. "I learned so much in college, and I definitely think I learned a lot about self-motivation, and discipline. The professors are really great there; they really do care about you. But at the end of the day, it's all about you and your career, and you've got to make it happen for yourself."

If You Go

What: "Wicked"

When: Through April 3

Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Cost: $38.75 and up

Information: scfta.org

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