Sixteen months ago, the Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables was primed, rehearsed and ready to present Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot. Artistic boss David Arisco had settled into the director’s chair. Dave Nagy was eager to direct the musical score. Lights, sound, sets, props, even fight choreography, were on track.
An excited Leah Marie Sessa – a singer/actress with acknowledged vocal excellence and talent capable of modulating from light comedy to heavy drama — was prepared to step forward as Lady Elaine of Astolat, an innocent maiden who falls deeply in love with Sir Lancelot.
But love had to be put on hold. A malaise descended upon the world outside, something even King Arthur and his magic sword, Excalibur, could not rout.
The ailment that darkened every theater from Broadway to South Florida also stole the plum role of Elaine from Leah’s confident hands. She also lost her bartending job.
Leah Marie Sessa headshot.
“I lost Camelot,” sighed Leah during an interview at Starbucks, sipping an iced coffee – a personal favorite, along with chocolate chip cookies, Mounds bars and pumpkin spice.
But fate stepped in. “I became a bartender/singer at the Wick, which was a blessing in disguise.” The saving gig came from theater owner Marilynn Wick who presented cabaret-style shows in the lobby, which provided work for performers unemployed due to COVID. Leah sang in several productions.
A West Palm Beach native, she attended schools in Wellington and graduated from Wellington High. She grew up singing with choirs in elementary, middle and high schools. She even vocalized in class. Imagine – a singing book report!
“Singing and theatre have always given me so much joy and many blessings,” she said. “A blessing early in my singing life was being a part of the Wellington High School Choir. It was led by Dr. Robert Sharon, who to this day I still consider to be the most influential teacher I’ve ever had.”
“Choir was a safe place, and a place where I met many of my lifelong friends.” Being part of the choir gave her a unique opportunity to visit a legendary religious locale.
“Each year, the choir travels to a different place and sings in multiple venues. In my junior year, the trip was to Italy — and I got to go! We stayed in Florence, Venice and Rome and toured, explored — and ate.”
“We sang in multiple churches, including at the Vatican.” Quite an experience for a young girl who’s Italian and Catholic. “Also, my dad came along as a chaperone. So here I am with all my friends, my mentor, my dad in Italy singing in the holy city at the Vatican. The memories from that trip and the time with my dad are priceless.”
The choir provided Leah with another gift. “In my sophomore year, I went to New York, and I saw my very first Broadway show — Beauty and the Beast. And I ate my first slice of Ray’s Pizza. And this time, my mom was the chaperone.”
Leah’s mother – “my Number 1 fan” – is also a singer. “I definitely got my talent from my mom. And my heart.”
Her red-haired, brown-eyed daughter followed suit, vocalizing in her room and acting in make-believe shows as a child. “I never did an actual musical until my sophomore year in high school. When I did, I was instantly hooked.”
She moved on to Palm Beach Atlantic University and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in musical theatre. “My father wanted me to take a double major in college. But I didn’t. There wasn’t anything else I wanted to do.”
Leah accepting her (one of three) Carbonell Award for Heathers.
When she hit the stage for real – as Sally Bowles in Entr’Acte Theatrix’ production of Cabaret, Leah Marie Sessa was practically unstoppable. That was followed by Rumors and Jerry’s Girls at Broward Stage Door, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and 8-Track: The Sounds of the ’70s at the Plaza, Pippin at Boca Raton Theatre Guild, Side by Side by Sondheim at the Crest and The World Goes ‘Round with MNM at Kravis. Rumors and The World Goes ‘Round won Carbonells for best ensemble shows.
“I was in Sound of Music at the Wick, and I played a nun. Then, I was in Sister Act at the Wick, and I played a nun….”
Leah as Ado Annie in Oklahoma.
Leah was becoming a force in musical theater. She was nominated for a Carbonell for her portrayal of Ado Annie in Oklahoma at the Wick. Soon afterward, she won the singular honor – one of her three Carbonells – for Heathers, a show that also supplied a lesson in life.
Leah as Heather Chandler in Heathers.
“I portrayed Heather Chandler, the female antagonist,” which won her the award for best supporting actress in a musical. “I must say she was fun to play. I also had an epic death scene, and I was able to say some of the most well-known cult classic movie lines.”
“The show truly changed my life. It came during the ‘Why did I not pick a different career?’ time in my life. It ignited the passion back into my soul and my heart. It reminded me how lucky I am to do what I love and call this my career.”
“Now when someone asks me what I do for a living, I no longer say I’m a struggling actress. I hold my head high and say I’m an actress.”
Leah as Harlowe in Harlowe.
She soon accepted a role that truly challenged her acting mettle and physical stamina – Harlowe, at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab.
“After suffering a potent physical trauma, Harlowe loses her sense of touch,” she explained. “When her sister brings her home to convalesce, she retreats to the bathroom and spends hours languishing in the tub. Harlowe is a story of sisters and bodies; a story of how we heal.”
“Getting cast as Harlowe is one of the greatest gifts I’ve received,” Leah said. “When I got the offer, I actually sat on the floor and cried with joy. It felt like all my hard work was paying off and I was so hungry for the challenges and opportunities that came with this show. I’m forever grateful to Matt Stabile (Theatre Lab artistic director) for giving me the gift of portraying Harlowe.”
The Victory Dolls (Leah is second from left) with a 100-year-old gentleman they got to serenade.
Leah recently expanded her vocal inventory by signing on with The Victory Dolls, nine professional singer/actresses well known to South Florida theatergoers. The troupe, which performs at theaters, country clubs, at condos and corporate events, conveys a nostalgic style, combining a vintage look and choreography with lively, original musical arrangements.
As she sang “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?” to a man in the audience at an early Victory Dolls show, Leah was stunned. “After the show, I asked him if we could take a picture with him. He proceeded to nonchalantly tell me he played piano and toured with ‘Marilyn’ when she sang for the troops.”
“My exact response was: ‘Wait. What? Marilyn Monroe?’ (One of her idols.) He then showed me this original picture of him and Marilyn he kept in his wallet. I proceeded to cry. This gentleman is just one of the veterans I have been blessed to sing for thanks to the Victory Dolls.”
The Victory Dolls performing for veterans during the Covid-19 pandemic.