By Ciara LaVelle
By George Martinez
By Kat Bein
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
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Syndee Winters is psyched to be back and doing her thing in Miami. What is her thing exactly? It is using her gobs of talent. But more specifically, the vivacious 25-year-old actress, singer, and dancer lives to perform as Nala in the Broadway tour of the Tony Award-winning smash hit The Lion King, which opens this week and runs through June 10 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
Winters promises a full-on theatergoing experience even though it's not highbrow entertainment. Then she wryly imitates the typical non-musical-theater-loving person."'I'm not a theater person,'" she says. "'I don't like how you randomly break into song. That's weird.'" Then she smiles. "But there's more to it than randomly breaking into song! There's the visual aspects. The cultural experience. The story. And I think The Lion King feeds into that, especially in a mainstream way."
Winters's passion for the arts was brought to life when she was an adolescent dreamer growing up in Miami. The youngest of three children, she moved here from New York at age 13 to live with her father and grandmother. It was as a student at Palmetto Senior High School that she fell in love with all things arts, culture, and entertainment. Driven and passionate, she joined anything at school that would get her on a stage performing in front of a crowd. "I was in every single extracurricular activity there was," she says. "Chorus, dance, musicals. I did stuff for Latin History Month, even though I'm really not even Hispanic. If anyone was like, 'Syndee you wanna do —,' I'd be like, 'Yes! I'll do it!'"
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Winters went the usual route of the struggling actress with dreams of stardom and show business. Upon graduating from Palmetto in 2005, she joined several local dance studios and then went to every audition that came up. She landed a few gigs, such as being a background dancer for reggaeton artists Taino and Lisa M.
But the big stage of New York City beckoned in summer 2006. Her father, who worked as a concert photographer in Jamaica, had always exposed Winters to various musical genres, often taking little Syndee to watch rehearsals with artists such as Stephen and Damian Marley. That influence gave her the push she needed to head back to NYC. "I remember my dad being so supportive of me leaving for New York. He never gave me grief about wanting to pursue my dream as a performer. He was the first to expose me to the entertainment industry. I remember sitting backstage at these concerts and absorbing it all."
It soon became clear that Winters's infectious, charismatic personality was tailor-made for Broadway and beyond. After graduating from Five Towns College, a business and performing arts school on Long Island, she served a brief stint as a New York Knicks dancer, hitting up theater auditions between strutting the hardwood and singing the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden. From there, she grabbed any gig she could to keep her fledgling career moving. "When my Knicks dancing days were over," she recalls, "I kept my acting career going. Always moving, always active. I was a wedding singer for a while."
Winters landed some sweet gigs, such as working with singer Rihanna and Grammy-nominated American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. Then, in 2007, an audition came up for the part of Nala, Simba's feisty childhood gal pal who eventually becomes his queen in Disney's The Lion King. Winters went in nervous and left knowing she had absolutely nailed it. "I'm coming out of that audition thinking, My dreams are gonna come true! This is it! I have hit it! I'm in! " she remembers. "Well, that didn't happen because I didn't even get a single call back."
She was undeterred. Three years later, she took another shot at the part. "In 2010, I got another call to come back for Nala," she says, her voice rising in anticipation of the happy ending to this particular chapter in her life. "I performed for them and did a couple of songs and — here I am! I've been on the tour for two years now, and I can honestly say I don't ever get tired of it."
The Lion King is based on the now-classic 1994 Disney animated film of the same name. It's largely the story of a father, a son, and growing up. The stage musical, directed by Julie Taymor and scored by Elton John and Tim Rice, opened on Broadway in 1997. It was an immediate hit, praised for its multicultural experimentation, puppetry, and distinctive African/Asian flair.
Featuring a cast of more than 40 actors, elaborate costumes, and giant puppets that become giraffes, gazelles, and birds of the Savannah, the production was praised for its visual and musical spectacle. "You're going there expecting furry costumes and a jungle setting and that sort of thing," Winters explains. "And you'll get all that. But you will definitely also have a full, culturally enriched experience. You'll be completely entertained. It's not just for kids. The whole family will walk away fully entertained."
Between performances as Nala, Winters has kept her solo career on track, putting out R&B songs that can be purchased on iTunes, such as her latest single, "What U Say." The video for it can be seen on YouTube.
"There's no set formula," she says about getting ahead professionally. "It's just when the time hits, you gotta be ready to do it. There's nothing like the experience of going to auditions and being a part of it. There will be a ton of noes before get your yeses."
The Lion King, which debuted on the Great White Way in 1997, has become one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history and has garnered rave reviews. Variety called it "a theatrical achievement unrivaled in its beauty, brains, and ingenuity," and Entertainment Weekly wrote, "The Lion King can make you fall in love with theater no matter what theater it's in."
The 2012 tour opened in Orlando last month and will head to Houston after hitting the Arsht Center. But the Miami run will have a special place in Winters's heart. "I can't even tell you how excited I am about performing in my hometown!" she exclaims.
Specifically, she looks forward to being a catalyst for the arts in Miami through the show. "There's a small theater niche in Miami," she says. "Growing up here, Miami didn't always have that level of appreciation for musical theater as they do in places like New York. And I would love to see people who have never been to or seen a Broadway show before experience it here for the first time through The Lion King." She then adds with her contagious excitement: "I'm psyched!"