BY CARY GINELL
Kendyl Yokoyama is a young performer with a mission. The 18-year-old recently graduated from high school and is preparing to attend Boston Conservatory in the fall. Her ascendancy in theater began as an impressive and skilled dancer, but she has since added acting and singing to her arsenal. In February, she starred as Belle in High Street Arts Center’s acclaimed production of Beauty and the Beast. Most recently, she appeared in the ensemble of Musical Theatre West’s Mary Poppins, a show that finished its run July 23. Now Kendyl is ready for her next big adventure in the theater as she leaves Ventura County for points east. We caught up with her (not an easy thing) during rehearsals for Poppins and she talked about her successes and her unique challenges in achieving her goal of a career on Broadway.
VCOS: Have you always been infected by the theater bug?
KENDYL: I wish I could say yes – and I feel like it has, but it all started with dance. When I was really little, I started tapping to “Singing in the Rain.” Gene Kelly was my hero and tapping became everything to me. And then from there, I discovered singing. I have two mentors – one is my tap teacher, who I’ve been with since I was five, and the other is my singing coach, who I’ve been with now for eight years. So both of them have encouraged me to start in theater. They both said, “You’ll really love it. Trust me.” And when I finally tried it, in the first audition I ever did, I thought, “This is it. I have to be here. This is where I belong.” I was at a callback for the first show I ever did, which was Aladdin Jr. I was called back for Jasmine and I did this scene. I was 14 at the time. I finished the scene and I said to my mom, “I loved every bit of that. I don’t care if I don’t get the part, but I just need to be on the stage. This is what I was meant to do for the rest of my life.” I’ve never had a moment since that was that big for me.
VCOS: So you’ve set your goal.
KENDYL: Yup. My goal is set.
KENDYL: I hope so! I was close to it at one point. I went to callbacks for Miss Saigon on Broadway as a replacement for Kim and I had to fly back and forth to New York four times last year. All of that was extremely life-changing and amazing. Being an amateur going into that, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was so incredible, so since that time, Broadway has been my goal. In the fall I’m going to Boston Conservatory where I’ll be majoring in musical theater. I got their Presidential Scholarship – I was the only one who got it – so I’m very excited.
VCOS: When you’re in the theater, you have to be able to handle rejection.
KENDYL: Ohhhhh, yeah.
VCOS: So how do you turn a negative into a positive?
KENDYL: Prove them wrong. Every rejection I have ever gotten, I say that to myself. Now, sometimes, people who have rejected me have been very nice about it. And a couple of times they were not. I’ve definitely had my share of it in community theater where people were not racially flexible or diverse…yet. But the world is changing so who knows?
VCOS: Does that continue to be a big obstacle for you?
KENDYL: It’s not as big as I would have expected, but after going through it for the first time, I got some comments. I remember going to an audition and I was told, “You can’t be this role unless your parents were Asian.” And I thought, “Wow. You’re judging me for what I look like without taking into account my talent.” That was the first time that I realized that I have a purpose, not only to do theater for myself, but for others who are ethnically diverse, who keep getting rejected or put aside because of what they look like or where they came from. So I realized that this world is changing and I want to make it out there and prove to everyone, everyone who didn’t believe in me, that talent is what matters and not what you look like or where you came from.
VCOS: Was getting Belle in Beauty and the Beast a big breakthrough for you?
KENDYL: Huge. Huge. That was my first lead role since I was Jasmine in Aladdin Jr. and it was my first adult production where I played the lead. I was very comfortable doing ensemble work, being a dancer and everything, and I was welcomed as an ensemble member, but having an opportunity to play a lead role, that was very new to me. So it was a huge breakthrough for me and also something that I got because of my talent as an actor, a dancer, and a singer. I’m not a Caucasian Belle, I’m my own version of Belle. That’s what they wanted and that’s what I gave them.
VCOS: Would you be comfortable having a career just as an ensemble performer?
KENDYL: Yes, I would do ensemble. But the goal would be to be a lead, recognizing that I have to pay my dues first. I realize I have to get to know people, make connections, and then at a certain point I can really go for those lead roles. So, yes, I would be comfortable doing ensemble work, but the goal is to be the lead in a show.
VCOS: Do you still consider dancing your strength?
KENDYL: You know, I won’t say it’s my number one strength…
VCOS: So what is?
KENDYL: I would definitely say either dancing or singing. I feel like I’ve grown a ton as a singer, even though I’ve been dancing the longest. I’m very comfortable as a singer now. It’s the acting that I’m now working on and I definitely want to learn a lot more because I only started acting a couple of years ago, whereas singing and dancing I’ve been doing for years. But I can’t choose whether I’m better at dancing or singing. I love them both so much.
VCOS: When you go for a part, and you realize all the things the part calls for: dancing, singing, movement, timing, comedy, is there a comfort zone that tells you that this particular part is something you don’t have to worry a lot about, you can handle it?
KENDYL: That would definitely be the dancing part. Dancing is something where I have the most confidence, where I can say to myself, “I got this.” As for singing, if I rehearse and practice on my own, then I’m good with that, too, but the singing part takes more work for me. I have to focus and make sure I know what I’m doing. But dancing is more of an automatic for me and I can set that aside and concentrate on the singing and acting parts.
VCOS: When you go into an audition, do you feel that you have an edge over other girls in any particular aspect?
KENDYL: There are a lot of talented people in this world and I know that there will always be someone better than me, but in order for me to look good, I have to have this mental thought process where I say to myself, “You’re good, and you’re going to show them why you should be in their show.” I’m not thinking about anyone else, necessarily, but I want to show them what I have. So I have to have this confidence and play this mental game in my head where I realize I’m good enough to be in their show.
VCOS: It’s not always your skill versus someone else. Your advantage is that you are Kendyl and no one else is.
KENDYL: Right. You can’t just go in their and act. They want to see who you are and if you’re mean or nasty, no one will want to work with you, no matter how much talent you have. But if you’re kind and giving and show a love to create, then you’ll fit right in.
VCOS: Have you seen any negative personalities?
KENDYL: One time I was laughed at an audition. I sang for them and I believe it was the producers who laughed at me after I sang. I thought I had done a pretty good job but they laughed. And as I walked out, I thought, “That was strange.” I was told that the shows I could be in were The King and I, Allegiance, and Miss Saigon, and that was it. I’ve also had my share of people who were nasty and had bad mouths, and talk in the middle of an audition or text in the middle of an audition or you don’t know if they’ve turned on the camera or not. Things like that. It’s not unusual and I expect it. But you have to let that roll off your back. You can’t let every little thing bother you. It’s not personal.
VCOS: Tell me about performing in Mary Poppins.
KENDYL: My first professional show was Mary Poppins with Cabrillo and now I’m doing it with Musical Theatre West and it’s just as much fun the second time around. Everyone is so caring and loving so I have nothing bad to say about anyone in that production. They’re beautiful and talented – it’s crazy how fast everyone picks up their parts and how great we all sound together. They’re all supportive of each other. That will be my last show before I move to Boston.
VCOS: Are you going to come back during your summer breaks?
KENDYL: I’m not sure yet. There are regional theaters out there that I would like to work with, but I may come back and work with theaters here. I haven’t decided yet. I just want to work for a regional theater as much as I possibly can, either when I’m on a break from school or even when I’m in school. That’s something I was adamant about when I was applying to schools. That’s what I love about Boston Conservatory. They don’t want to hinder your journey or keep you from something that could be life changing.
VCOS: When you get your first giant role on Broadway, who will be the first person you call other than your family?
KENDYL: My mentors. I don’t know which one first, whichever one is available (laughs). To be honest, sometimes they don’t answer their phones because of lessons or family. So it would be either my tap dance teacher, Maggie Danielson, or my voice teacher, Vanessa Townsell. Besides my family, they are my biggest support system. They’ve supported me ever since I was a baby and I love them so much. Yeah, definitely, they would be the first ones I call.
VCOS: And what is your credo, the one thing that keeps you going?
KENDYL: Prove them wrong.