USF grad Kissy Simmons comes home as the female lead in ‘The Lion King.’
When she started as a freshman at USF, she didn’t know what she wanted to do. On a track scholarship, Kissy Simmons was more focused on jumping hurdles and throwing javelins than acting and dancing in musicals.
But, she says she prefers her current gig playing Nala in the touring company of The Lion King to her days competing in the heptathlon for her alma mater.
“I don’t miss that at all,” she said. “I had a great time, but performing is what I want to do. I still work out on my own, do weights and run. But as far as being on a track team, I’ve moved on from that.”
However, it was on the track team where she met her future husband, as well as information about what would be her big break into acting.
“I had a friend who ran track and field whose dad was a security guard at the theatre,” Simmons said. “He told me about an audition, and six months later I got a job with the repertory theatre company at the Performing Arts Center.”
Although some of her teammates helped open doors for her interest in performing, others still encouraged her along.
Brian Wilson, a 2001 alumnus, said he remembers her as being a great high jumper, but was unaware she had become a Broadway actor since graduation.
“We always told her to do something with her voice, but I didn’t even know she was acting and singing,” he said. “She was an amazing athlete, and one of the sweetest people on the team.”
Simmons said she considered doing theater at USF, but “it didn’t work out.”
“It was something I loved to do, I did it in high school, singing in church,” she said. “When I was in college, I went home and I was still playing piano and singing at church. I would sing the national anthem at USF occasions.”
It’s only been four and a half years since starting her career in acting and now she has the female lead in one of the biggest stage musicals of all time. Her story is as simple and fortuitous as they come.
“I went on the Internet and saw they had open auditions for Lion King and Aida,” Simmons said, referring to two of Disney’s three musicals on Broadway.
“So I flew to New York and went to the Apollo Theater, where the audition was, in August 2001. I got a call back for Aida the next day.
“Then we went home. Aida flew me back in September, and Lion King then expressed interest in having me stay. Then Sept. 11 happened and I was stuck in New York for eight days. Lion King called me the next week and told me that I had the part of Nala.”
Because the adult Nala character doesn’t appear until the second act of the show, Simmons is stuck backstage stretching, warming up her voice and putting on makeup.
But she’d rather watch the “Circle of Life” animal procession, which opens the show with actors on stilts portraying giraffes, et al parading down aisles between the audience.
“It’s fascinating,” Simmons said. “People are excited, they don’t know where to look. I wish I could see it every night, but I can’t go out and sit with the audience.”
Rather, she has to wait for her younger counterpart to grow up into her. The characterization of young Nala is sassier in the show than presented in the movie.
“The young ones are able to get away with more things because they are children,” Simmons said. “The older Nala is more regal. Nala is still sassy, but it’s more of an undercurrent of sassiness. No one really knows what she’s about.”
The Nala character was beefed up for the stage musical, complete with a solo number and a scene in which she fends off Scar’s unwanted sexual advances, something that would have been taboo for the G-rated film.
“That’s made to be done in the show,” Simmons said. “I think in the show they can get away with more than in the animated feature. Nala was made to be seen as a strong female in the show.”
In her solo, “Shadowlands,” Simmons says her character has to do something to help her pride of lionesses.
“I know that all us of have been raped by Scar, and I got to get out of there,” she said. “It’s getting dangerous, the Pride Lands are not what it used to be. It’s dry and there’s no food. I’m really going out searching for something, I know I will return with some type of hope. And then I later find Simba.
“It kind of starts out sad in my mind, but toward the end of the song, I’m determined I’m going to make it and we’ll have some hope.”
Simmons’ current hope is to stay with the tour. Her current contract is up in two more stops when the crew gets to Cincinnati. She says she’s lucky that she gets to choose whether to renew her contract.
In the meantime, she said she enjoys spending time with her husband, Anthony Vaughan, an engineer whom she met on the track team while at USF and who now travels with the touring company to be with her.
As for her career after Nala, she says it’s up in the air.
“I want it all,” she said. “I want to do everything. I’d like to do movies, commercials, be in a sitcom, record an album. I even want to model.
“I think it’s possible to do it all. We have to see what works for us.”
For now, she said she’s delighted to be back home for a short while.
“I’m happy to perform in front of Tampa patrons,” she said. “It gives me more motivation to get out there and do my best.”
Contact Will Albrittonat oraclewill @yahoo.com