BY GREG JOHNSON
For starters, Kim Morgan Dean isn’t her real name. But we’ll come back to that later.
When the young actress/singer-with-the-powerhouse voice took the Amtrak Cardinal from New York City to White Sulphur Springs to appear in the Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s 2010 production of The Marvelous Wonderettes, she noticed the urban scenery getting more and more countrified, and she wondered what she’d gotten herself into. She arrived in the dark and was taken to the home of John and Elizabeth Arbuckle, longtime GVT supporters who were housing some of the cast.
“In the morning I heard braying,” she remembers. “I looked out the window and I saw a donkey! Up until then I’d only lived cities and suburbs, and I didn’t know what to think.”
Five years later it’s obvious she has adapted to life in the Greenbrier Valley. “I feel like GVT has become my artistic home,” she says. “I’d love to stay here as long as they’ll have me.” Considering how enthusiastically local audiences have embraced her, it could be a while.
They’ve seen her as Velma Kelly in Chicago, Sally Bowes in Cabaret, and Dulcinea in Man of LaMancha. They’ve heard her belt out pop tunes in Beehive and The Marvelous Wonderettes, and holiday classics in The Winter Wonderettes. They’ve laughed at her comic turn in Boeing Boeing, and witnessed her less-than-reverent impression of Liza Minnelli at Kermit’s Kabaret. The general consensus is that the kid’s got talent.
What most of her fans probably don’t know is that before she moved here she worked as a singing waitress, appeared in a commercial paddling a kayak in the Hudson River, spent a day filming with Al Roker, and won awards for her acting in South Florida. And what they really don’t know is that, very secretly, she’s a history nerd.
The long and winding road to stardom, or at least the local version of it, began in Pembroke Pines, the South Florida suburb near Fort Lauderdale where she grew up. Her name was, and still is, Kimberly Morgan. “When I applied for my Actors’ Equity card I discovered there was another actress named Kim Morgan. One of the services Equity provides is professional name protection, so I had to come up with another name. Dean is my father’s middle name, and the middle name of one of my brothers, so I just added it to my own. Now I’m like all the other pretentious three-named celebrities!” Take that, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jamie Lee Curtis, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jada Pinkett Smith.
Her parents and her two younger brothers weren’t theatrical, so she figures her performing genes must have come from her great-aunt Joy, who won thespian contests and had a good singing voice. She remembers being enthralled the first time she saw The King and I on television, at age 6. Auntie Joy recognized a kindred spirit and nudged her along, buying her VHS tapes of musicals. Pretty soon she knew all the songs in the Disney catalog. She remembers re-enacting The Little Mermaid in her grandparents’ swimming pool, where she cast herself as Ariel and her grandmother as the sea witch Ursula.
Fittingly, her first role wasn’t in a church play, but at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, where, at age 10 she played an Asian princess in The King and I. “My hair was blonde and they dyed it black for the role. My poor mother was worried about what my teachers would think, because coloring your hair wasn’t something good parents let their children do back then.”
She attended Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes, an inner city school, and by her teenage years she was landing leading roles. “I was Rizzo in Grease, Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie, Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and The Witch in Into the Woods,” she ticks off her pre-collegiate credits. Into the Woods might seem like a tough musical for high schoolers to tackle, but she shrugs it off. “I was such a theatre nerd that I had the whole score memorized three years before we actually did it.”
She played sports and she excelled academically. Her drama teacher, Mindy Clarke, an early mentor, encouraged her to focus and not spread herself too thin. They still stay in touch. “We’ve become good friends over the years. She’s so supportive she’s even flown to New York to see me in shows.”
She attended the University of Tampa with the help of academic and musical theatre scholarships. “They have a small theatre department, which means you can be cast in lots of things. In some of the larger programs you have to be a graduate student before you get a major role. Theatre is like any other art – you can only learn so much by studying theory. You have to learn by doing. There were only 14 in our class, so we had plenty of opportunities to be on stage.” By the time she left the university she had appeared in The Heiress, A View from the Bridge, Schoolhouse Rock Live, Baby, The Who’s Tommy, and cabarets.
Young theatre graduates who want to work in their field but lack Equity credentials have a number of time-honored routes. One is entertaining summer tourists under the stars in outdoor dramas. This explains how she ended up in Sandy Springs, Oklahoma, at age 22, working at Discoveryland. “We were doing Oklahoma and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in a huge amphitheater that seated 2000. They had actual livestock in the show, and a real Surrey with the Fringe on Top, and cowboys doing lasso tricks. It was a pretty amazing production, but unfortunately after 40 years they went out of business.”
She returned to her home state and for several years she worked in theatres in South Florida – most notably Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers and Gablestage in Coral Gables. Interestingly, for someone known for her singing voice today, she didn’t appear in musicals in this stretch of her early career. “I’ve always thought of myself as an actor who sings,” she says, “not a singer who acts. I wasn’t singing when I earned my Equity card at Gablestage in 2007.” By this point she’d become Kim Morgan Dean, and under her new professional name she went on to win two Carbonell awards, a Florida version of the Oscars created by the late Cuban sculptor Manuel Carbonell.
Like most stage actors she saw New York as Mecca, and she decided it was time to head north. “There’s just something about being in the theatre district and knowing the people who work there,” she muses. “It’s a much smaller world than you’d think, and you feel like you’re part of it.” She lived variously in Harlem, Astoria and Hell’s Kitchen. Astoria, in the northwestern corner of Queens, is her favorite New York neighborhood. “Theatre people call it ‘Actoria’ because so many of them live there,” she shares a little inside lore.
Starving artists need day jobs, so she went to work at Ellen’s Stardust Diner on 51st and Broadway, “Home of the Singing Waitstaff”, where she wore a poodle skirt and cat-eye glasses and sang show tunes and pop songs while she waited on tables. The restaurant understood the nature of their performer-employees and would hold their jobs when they went off to audition or perform. She left twice to play Betty Jean in Wonderettes, at GVT and Ocean State Theatre Company in Rhode Island.
The Greenbrier Valley was her introduction to rural and small town living, and to her surprise she discovered she loved it. “Three of us stayed on the Arbuckles’ farm, and they became our second family. We started calling Elizabeth ‘Mountain Mama’. We would come in from rehearsal and sit on the front porch, drink wine and play Scrabble. We made s’mores in the fireplace. It really felt like home, not actor housing. We were all in tears when we got on the train at the end of the summer, like kids who didn’t want to leave summer camp.”
When GVT’s Artistic Director Cathey Sawyer invited Kim to return in the spring of 2011 to play Jo in Little Women, she didn’t have to give it much thought. This time she stayed until the end of the year, again living with the Arbuckles. Over a busy 9 months she added Ring of Fire, Becky’s New Car, Completely Hollywood Abridged, Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Romeo and Juliet, Oliver and Winter Wonderettes to her ever-growing resume.
Complicating matters, before leaving New York she had started dating Valerie Colella, a Brooklyn native who was then working as a production assistant for Lincoln Center’s design department. They had gotten engaged and were planning a New York wedding, but decided to put it on hold while Kim worked in Lewisburg. Their 9-month separation was a challenge, but Val took advantage of what were then daily flights between LaGuardia and Lewisburg, and flew down every month. The relationship survived and flourished.
Returning to New York, Kim spent a year focusing on getting work in commercials, meeting with agents and taking classes. “The thing about commercial auditions is you can go to 10 in a week, so the auditioning process becomes your full-time job,” she observes wryly. “I was the queen of getting called back but not getting the role. I did shoot a commercial for Jenny-O Turkeys, where I had to sit in a kayak on the Hudson River.” She doesn’t explain what kayaks have to do with frozen turkeys, but it sounds like a subject that’s perhaps better left unexplored. She spent a day filming with Al Roker’s production company, and she found the Today Show weatherman as genial and warm as he seems on TV.
When Cathey Sawyer invited her to return to GVT full-time as company manager, she knew that while the job ostensibly involved handing Equity contracts, coordinating travel and accommodations for the actors, and helping cast shows, she would still have opportunities to appear on stage. “By that point I was exhausted by the city. We were paying bills but we weren’t getting ahead. I’d fallen in love with Lewisburg and the people and GVT, so it was an easy decision. Even Val, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, didn’t have any hesitation about making the move. We came in March 2014 and we’ve never looked back.”
“I immediately felt at home here,” Val adds. “There’s an inherent warmth to this community and I was completely charmed by the love and hospitality we received. The Greenbrier Valley is this beautiful hidden gem of a place. When friends visit us and experience the area, they understand why we made the move. I love waving to people on the street, and I love the river! I often joke that I was born on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line. The mountains suit this Manhattan girl just fine.”
GVT has given Kim the chance to spread her artistic wings. One of her discoveries is that she enjoys auditioning actors and casting shows. “Cathey and Kermit (Editor’s Note: Kermit Medsker is GVT’s music director) and I go up to New York, and we audition two or three hundred actors in two days. There are times you love someone but you don’t have the right role for them, so you keep their resume on file in case you do later.” She’s also gone to the Unified Professional Theatre Auditions (UPTA) in Memphis, Tennessee, with Kermit. “Sometimes an actor can’t make the audition, so they’ll send a video. We found Erin Maya, the woman who was so phenomenal as Janis Joplin in Beehive, that way. She missed the audition and sent us a video, and we cast her on the basis of it.”
She found herself facing a different type of audition when she directed the theatre’s 2015 holiday production of A Christmas Carol. “Fifty kids auditioned. Most of them were from our theatre program. I love watching them go from being so shy that they won’t even look you in the eye to standing center stage and doing a monologue. It shows the value of what our children’s program is doing.”
The demands of producing year-round theatre don’t leave the GVT staff with much down time, but when she’s not working Kim enjoys running on the Greenbrier River Trail and in the Greenbrier State Forest. She spends most of her free time with Val, who works for Lewisburg’s popular distillery, Smooth Ambler. Her energetic, outgoing partner is also a dog rescuer and on the local roller derby team, so they’re rarely at a loss for something to do.
She’d like to have more time to travel. She has been to Europe, and twice to Peru. Her wish list includes some off-the-beaten-path destinations: India, Morocco and the countries of Southeast Asia. “I’m not a traditional tourist,” she admits.
She doesn’t even have much time to get back to her old stomping grounds, New York City. As an actor and a fan she’d like to be able to keep up with Broadway productions. Three current ones she’d like to see are Hamilton, Fun Home and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.
She minored in history in college, and she still has a fascination with it. “I’d be writing papers about medieval shepherds while my theatre friends were writing bios of Bernadette Peters. When I was in high school I took a European history class at Cambridge University. One day I took the train to London by myself without knowing where I was going. I got off at King’s Cross Station and started wandering around. Eventually I found the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. It tells the story of the performing arts in Great Britain from the sixteenth century to the present day, with costumes and manuscripts and posters. I loved it! I couldn’t have found a better way to spend the day, even if I’d known where I was going.”
Kim Morgan Dean’s fans include at least one very important one – her employer at GVT, Cathey Sawyer. “Having Kim as part of our company has been a godsend,” Sawyer shares her review. “She’s a terrific actress – smart, precise, and highly capable. She has a wide range as an actress and as a singer, which makes her a perfect company member. She’s also one of the most dedicated theatre people I’ve ever met. She’s not afraid to roll up her sleeves and do whatever it takes to keep the theatre going because she believes in what theatre can do for its audience and for our youth. She’s a joy to be around.”
Her better half Val heartily concurs. “Kim is sort of a force of nature. She throws herself into any task with the fiercest of commitment – even if it’s household chores. I’m sure she wishes at times that I shared that gusto. But seriously, I place so much trust in her counsel. She has incredible insight and sensitivity to others. Mostly, I’m just very proud of her and her bravery on and off stage. She lives her life very authentically, and I’m lucky to share mine with her.”