The Lioness Returns

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons as Nala in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons’ early career began on stages around the Tampa Bay region, one of which was our Jaeb Theater. She left for New York City the week of Sept. 11, 2001, to audition for Aida, a Disney production. Her audition led to an interest in her for The Lion King, and she and her husband stayed in the city during the chaos of the September 11th crisis. That Monday, Sept. 17, Kissy was cast as Nala in The Lion King, directed by lauded Julie Taymor, and began a decade-long journey with the show on Broadway, in Las Vegas and on the first national tour, which came to Morsani Hall in 2002.

Kissy, short for Kissimmee, a town close to her birthplace of Floral City, FL, returns to the Jaeb Theater Nov. 1, 2014, for a solo show as part of our brand new Cabaret Series. In many ways, she is returning to her roots, and we are happy to welcome her home. Caught in the Act caught up with Kissy by phone in her New York City apartment to talk about identity and place and her upcoming performance in the Jaeb.

CitA: We’ve been hearing rumors that your show is going to be a retrospective/introspective look at your life from the Straz to Broadway and back again. Is this true? And will you talk a little bit about how your upbringing in Florida has shaped your life as a performer?

KS (laughs): My show centers around the Straz, how I got my start, and where life has gone. For me, it all hinges from church. I was just a church girl who wanted to play the organ. I saw our organist in church and I thought “oh my goodness, I want to play the organ!” My talent derived from that environment and was facilitated there—even acting. We did skits and had to deliver Christmas speeches. You know, you don’t think about ‘down the road’ when you’re doing it, but now I look back and see. I look at my daughter (2-year-old Sadie), and I know that experiences like that matter. It makes a difference, at least it did for me. Those are my roots. The Straz … well, that was a really big deal. I had this idea of being a performer, but I didn’t know what that meant, it felt like a fantasy. I didn’t know how I would get there. I would audition at the [Florida] theme parks and couldn’t get a job with them. Luckily, the Straz was there and I was able to do so many cabaret shows. The Straz was a blessing. I even got married there!

We didn’t know that! Do tell.

Yes, by the water. We were in rehearsals for Swing! Swing! Swing! I approached Judy [Lisi, Straz Center President] to do something small, and she was like “oh, honey…” and my little idea turned into a wedding I never could have imagined! It was run like a show with calls and everything.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center's brand new Cabaret Series.

Kissy Simmons returns to the Jaeb Theater on Nov. 1 to kick-off the Straz Center’s brand new Cabaret Series.

That’s fantastic. So this is a real coming home for you.

I feel no shame in where I’m from. I’m from Floral City, the town with one traffic light. I walk around New York City in my cowboy boots. That’s where I’m from—I’m a small town country girl. You are who you are. For me to come back from being away and experiencing so many cultures, Vegas, New York … it’s refreshing to come home and see how people can ground you. When I go to Winn-Dixie [the grocery store], people say hello. My high school friends who stayed now have their kids at Inverness Middle School. It’s nice to see people I have roots with rooted in their own families. There are so many people to keep me connected, and it’s important for me to come back—but it is just as important for me to give back. You realize people have been rooting for you this whole time, and it’s a two-way street. It’s an opportunity to perform for people who supported me. People give me the strength to be able to do this, and I like to give it back. I’ll always be in and out of Florida even though New York is where we are.

You are an extremely down-to-earth person, with a relatively normal life, long-time marriage, a child … how do you stay humble in the entertainment business and stay out of a lot of the traps of the lifestyle?

I met Anthony [her husband] when we were both running track at USF [the University of South Florida]. I saw him and knew that was what I wanted, and that was that! (laughs) I know entertainment is what it is. I see it as such a blessing and opportunity. I get to do what I love. All jobs are important. All of our jobs no matter what it is are so important, and I view life that way. To blow it or waste it, for me, would be tragic. I know people recover [from addictions] and overcome, which is wonderful. But I just look at it like a huge blessing that I get to participate in. I’m my own worst critic, and in this business, it’s subject to people’s opinions. It’s a judged environment, and that can be hard. I learned humility through church, and maybe if I didn’t know to pray then I would be tempted to do something external to help me out, but I can stay grounded in being grateful for the opportunity. But that’s just my perspective, just the path I have been on.

We are really looking forward to having you to all to ourselves for your cabaret show. Will you give us a little sneak peek of what we can expect?

Let’s just say … expect some familiar tunes! Especially from shows done in the Jaeb. This performance is going to be a great time. Expect lots of fun and fun moments. Stan Collins, my piano player—he’s phenomenal. I wouldn’t do this show with anyone else! It’ll be me, Stan, and bass and drums. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

Kissy Simmons, as Nala, and the Lionesses in The Lion King.

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