Kayla Pecchioni’s musical theater career has already taken her all over the world — from a cruise line touring the Caribbean and parts of Europe to a Broadway production in South Korea — but it was in Louisville where she first found her love for theater. In fact, it was in her senior year at Youth Performing Arts School, or YPAS, when she first caught the bug.
Before that, it was all about dance.
“I grew up going to different dance studios,” she said. “I was part of a dance team in middle school and high school, and I really grew up kind of on a serious dancer track. And, then, I got to YPAS. I was a dance major there, and in my final year of high school, they needed someone to audition for the musical. I kinda got pulled into it by a few of my friends and from there … I was just like, ‘I’m set.’”
That musical was “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Now, Pecchioni’s returned to Louisville to star in a very show: the second Broadway National Tour of “Book of Mormon,” where she plays the lead female role of Nabulungi.
“This is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” Pecchioni said. “This is my first time playing a principal role at this level. So, it’s really been a challenge since the beginning, and I was honestly afraid to take it on. But as soon as they told me, ‘[Nabulungi]’s actually a lot like you and your personality — this is why you were cast,’ then I was like, ‘Oh, well, OK, then I can kind of be myself.’”
And it wasn’t just taking on a principal role that made her nervous about the show at first. When Pecchioni’s agents first suggested “Book of Mormon,” she worried about the show’s irreverent brand of humor. “Obviously our show is a bit profane. It’s written by the guys who wrote ‘South Park.’ I think I had maybe an apprehension to saying the things that we have to say right off the bat.”
However, much like she quickly found her bearings playing Nabulungi, the show’s humor began to grow on her.
“It’s so funny because those things that I was a little apprehensive to are definitely the least of my issues now,” she said with a laugh. “Once you get past that step, and once you’re in a room full of people saying the things that we have to say, it gets very comfortable very fast.”
So what has been the biggest challenge? “Holding my own and leading a show. It’s such a different skill set than being in the ensemble or dancing in the ensemble. So, it’s a nice challenge that I like to accept every day.”
In fact, for an actress who began with dance, there’s very little dancing involved in the role of Nabulungi. “I do a tiny bit of dancing here and there, but my character is very grounded. So, for the most part, she stays out of the hilarity that ensues. She’s kind of a linchpin for everyone else to work around. She’s kind of a straight man.”
However, she noted that the choreography for the show (by Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw) is hilarious. “It took me such a long time to not be a fan of the show while I was in it. Instead of working on my stuff, I would go and sit in the wings and just watch them perform on stage.”
While it’s often the dream for young theater artists to move to New York, the path wasn’t immediate for Pecchioni. “It’s kind of crazy to me that I’ve lived a very nomadic lifestyle since I left Louisville,” she explained. “A couple years after school, I went away to do some jobs that kind of took me around the country and the world. … I did a couple theme parks and cruise ships, and then, after my cruise ships, I moved to New York. When I finally got the money,” she adds lightly.
From there, she worked as a singer in the ensemble for the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Rockettes.” Finally, she found her agents and eventually “Book of Mormon.”
Of her agents, she said, “They’re phenomenal. I really wasn’t good at auditioning or pushing myself. As soon as I got them, I started going out to all these auditions that they sent me to.” When she had concerns about her ability to take on “Book of Mormon,” it was a nudge from her agents that convinced her to “just go to the audition and see what happens.”
Now, however, she’s excited to come home. “I’ve been with the tour for a year and a couple months now, and I feel like I’ve really come into my own. I’ve gotten the show really steady under my belt. So I’m ready to come show off what I’ve learned in the 10 years I’ve been gone from Louisville.”
It may be that in the audience of “Book of Mormon,” current YPAS students will be inspired by the performance of a former alumnus. I asked Pecchioni if she has advice for aspiring theater artists. It turns out, Pecchioni’s already had a few similar experiences.
“We have stage door, and we get a lot of young fans at the stage door who like to ask for advice,” she said. “People always laugh at what I have to say, but I truthfully, honestly say: ‘Just be kind. To every person that you meet.’ I never would have thought that I’d have gotten this far and connections and networking are a thing, but that’s never been my goal. I’ve always just thought ‘Let me go in and learn everything that I can, absorb everything that I can and just be kind to everyone.’ It really takes you far if you’re humble and just learning.”