Arts and Entertainment

Musical theatre alumna-to-be already living Broadway dream

Ixchel Cuellar rehearsed a song with her puppet character 'Lucy' for Penn State Centre Stage's February 2015 production of 'Avenue Q,' one of several roles during Cuellar's time at Penn State that showcased her incredible versatility. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture gathers for its spring commencement ceremony at noon on Saturday, May 7, one of the college’s bright young stars will instead be in New York City, preparing for a Broadway matinee.

That’s because musical theatre senior Ixchel Cuellar’s lifelong dream of performing on Broadway came true last week, on April 29, when she debuted as Miss Bassett in the musical “Finding Neverland.”

For Cuellar it’s been a whirlwind — and, as she readily admits, wholly unexpected — couple of weeks, going from an undergraduate finishing her last weeks at Penn State to being thrust under the bright lights of Broadway.

“It’s definitely been a test of my training,” said Cuellar, who had just four days of rehearsals before making her Broadway debut.

The rollercoaster ride began before spring break, when Cuellar found herself in New York with time to kill between auditions. At a friend’s urging she attended an open tryout for “Finding Neverland” to pass the time. A month later she was called back to New York for an invited dance audition, and afterward she was asked to come back that afternoon to sing and practice a few scenes.

The following day, her phone rang again.

“I was actually in my apartment at school, it was about 6:30 in the evening, and one of my roommates was home with one of our best friends,” Cuellar said. “I ran into their room and couldn’t speak, I just pointed to the phone and there was an unknown New York number. They were like ‘Answer! Answer!’ and I just froze. Then I answered and I cried, because it was just so unexpected. I never imagined getting a phone call to make my Broadway debut before I even graduated. I was expecting to move to New York and struggle for a while.”

The show offered Cuellar a vacation swing track, meaning she will fill in for cast members during their union-mandated vacation periods. In the case of her current role as Miss Bassett, she is filling in for a cast member on medical leave.

“Right now I’m fortunate because I get to perform for a month straight,” she said. “Then after she comes back, I’ll start learning the other parts in the show, so that when the other cast members go on vacation I can step right in and do the part. So I’ll be learning like three or four parts in the next month.”

Thanks to her Penn State training, Cuellar said she’s up to the task.

Ixchel Cuellar, standing, left, along with Johnny Link and Kate Johnson, all seniors in Penn State's musical theatre program, rehearse 'Together, Wherever We Go' from 'Gypsy' for 'We Are ... On Broadway!' in January at the State Theatre in downtown State College. Credit: Alex Bush / Penn StateCreative Commons

“The Penn State musical theatre program is amazing,” she said. “It’s truly a training program. You’re totally transformed by the end, not only from the training we receive in voice, dancing and acting, but also in terms of professionalism, back-stage tricks of the trade, things like that.

“This year I was really lucky to do a couple of independent studies that helped me out with building audition repertoire and learning how to swing a show, which is totally different than learning one part at a time. I definitely would not be here without Penn State.”

In addition to her class-based training, Cuellar has been active in many campus productions, appearing in “110 in the Shade,” ‘Titanic,” “Avenue Q,” “Into the Woods,” and “Funk it Up About Nothing,” among others.   

“‘Avenue Q’ was definitely my favorite,” she said. “The cast was brilliant, and we got along really well. I came to Penn State as a dancer primarily. I sang, too, but dancing was my strong suit, and that was my first part as a singer and actor. It was such a learning experience for me, and it really helped my confidence.”

After getting the phone call she’s dreamed about since she was a little girl growing up in San Francisco, Cuellar worked with her program head, John Simpkins, and the faculty in the School of Theatre to complete her studies while in New York. As an added bonus, Cuellar will get to participate in a showcase event with her fellow seniors during finals week, as a contingent from the School of Theatre will be traveling to New York to perform in front of casting directors and agents.

Still, Cuellar said the moment will be bittersweet when she walks into the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street instead of Eisenhower Auditorium on graduation day.

“I feel lucky that the reason I won’t be at graduation is because I’m living something that has been a lifelong dream of mine,” she said. “So that is a good feeling, but graduating from college and walking has also been something that I always thought I would do. It’s a huge accomplishment because the program is so rigorous. To have gotten through all four years and survived to graduate on time is a feat in itself, so I’m a little sad that I won’t be there.”

Having nothing left to prove at Penn State, Cuellar is now working to prove that she belongs on the theatre world’s biggest stage. That was the goal all along when she crossed the country to attend Penn State, even if the dream itself seemed much farther away.

“My mom took me to theatre camp when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I was crying because I didn’t want to go,” Cuellar said. “I thought I would hate it. It ended up being one of the best things ever, and I was like ‘I want to be on Broadway.’ So I’m pretty sure the 8-year-old in me would be crying and screaming and so excited because it’s something that seemed so distant when I was little, it seemed like this unreachable opportunity. I cannot believe that I’m actually doing it.”

Ixchel Cuellar, a senior in Penn State's musical theatre program, made her Broadway debut on April 29 as Miss Bassett in the musical 'Finding Neverland.' Credit: Matthew Murphy / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated May 12, 2016