Mckenzie Cahill in a production of "Mamma Mia" at Capistrano Valley High School. Photo provide by Mckenzie Cahill

Artist of the Year discovers passion for musical theater following challenging experiences

By Greg Mellen

Capistrano Valley High senior McKenzie Cahill wasn’t your typical “theater kid” growing up. She was too busy kicking butt and earning a black belt in martial arts classes.

However, when she reached high school, singing and acting became Cahill’s outlet for the emotions she felt trying to defend and support her younger sister, who suffered from bullying and abuse in middle school.

Cahill, who has an Irish father and Trinidadian mother, had heard racial taunts growing up in Orange County; however, she said she was able to fend for herself when she heard slurs in middle school, in part due to the martial arts training she had received.

“People were calling me the N-word. I just ignored it,” she said. “When you don’t give them anything to work with it stops.”

McKenzie Cahill, center, with other cast members in a production of “Mamma Mia” at Capistrano Valley High School.
Photo provided by McKenzie Cahill

Then the pandemic came along, closing school and removing Cahill from that kind of element.

“I got to go to high school, (my sister) had to go there,” Cahill said of her sister entering a middle school environment in the wake of the pandemic when social and behavioral mores had degraded. Cahill said she felt the “sheer helplessness” of not being able to defend her sister in person.

“It’s hard to worry for someone else,” Cahill said.

To deal with her anger and grief, Cahill poured herself into her dramatic roles, particularly when Cahill played the lead role in the Capo Valley High production of “Little Women.” Her character, Jo March, is one of four sisters in the play who struggles with growing into womanhood and finding her place in a restrictive society.

“For me, singing is the best way to bring the most authentic emotion. It’s not hard to find,” Cahill says of using her memories to drive her performances.

McKenzie Cahill with other cast members in a production of “Mary Poppins” at Capistrano Valley High School.
Photo provided by McKenzie Cahill

Cahill and her sister have worked their way through the worst of the ordeal. But Cahill is still able to go to those memories to find the core of her characters. Cahill says of her sister, “She’s made me a  better performer,” but admits, “I’d rather that had not happened.”

This year, Cahill became the Capistrano Unified School District’s second consecutive — and second ever — student to win an Artist of the Year Award from the Orange County Register in Theater. One of the most competitive categories in the contest, judged by college and professional artists, Theater included 16 semifinalists in acting, directing, design, and musical theater.

Late to the game

Cahill discovered theater arts as an after-school activity online and in person during her eighth-grade year, when the pandemic upended her usual routines.

“It was hard to do, nothing had been that hard,” Cahill recalls of her introduction to theater. “It was so much harder than sports.”

But her talent was undeniable from the start, particularly when she began to knock out songs.

“She’s the best singer we’ve ever had here,” said Emily Tucker, Capo Valley High’s theater director for more than 17 years, noting both Cahill’s vocal range and ability to “belt.”

As a freshman, Cahill received a callback for a lead in the Tony Award-winning musical comedy “Urinetown,” a rare accomplishment for a freshman at the school. Although a senior was cast in the lead role, Cahill earned herself a part and had demonstrated her chops.

McKenzie Cahill, center, and other cast members in a production of “Mary Poppins” at Capistrano Valley High School.
Photo provided by McKenzie Cahill

Cahill demurs when told of Tucker’s analysis, saying there have been singers who were “10 times better” during her tenure at the high school.

“I appreciate that she said that,” Cahill said. “I think she’s blowing smoke a little bit. I hope to prove her right someday.”

Cahill says the “theater bug” really bit when performing for younger kids.

Whether it was terrifying them as Euphemia Andrew, the evil nanny in “Mary Poppins,” or delighting them a memorable and “eww-worthy” over-the-top scene in “Matilda,” Cahill thrived off the reactions and the children’s comments afterward. In short, she was hooked.

The live performance, Cahill said, was like nothing she had experienced.

“It was like fire,” Cahill said. “It was passion.”

McKenzie Cahill, right, in a production of “Little Women” at Capistrano Valley High School.
Photo provided by McKenzie Cahill

Star turns

Since then, Cahill has become a mainstay in the CVHS theater program, extending her skills behind the curtain to directions and even crew.

She was the student director of the CVHS production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and co-student directed “The Taming of the Shrew.”

“She’s magnetic, kids gravitate to her,” Tucker said. “She doesn’t take crap, but not in a mean way. She’s a true leader.”

“I love every single aspect,” Cahill says of theater.

However, music remains her calling card.

In her audition for Artist of the Year, Cahill showed her breadth, transitioning from the poignant and vulnerable “To My Angels” from “SuperYou,” to a comic and range-busting rendition of “Brimstone and Treacle” from the stage version of “Mary Poppins.”

McKenzie Cahill, center, in a production of “Mamma Mia” at Capistrano Valley High School.
Photo provided by McKenzie Cahill

In the school’s version of that play, Cahill not only played the evil Miss Andrew, Mary’s antagonist, but also the Bird Woman for the iconic song “Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag).”

Cahill also won Best Vocalist in the OC Cappies, and the JRAY Featured Actress award.

Cahill has been taking voice lessons this year to hone her skills. After initially being waitlisted by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Cahill learned she had been accepted and will attend in the fall. Although she was accepted at other schools where she applied to study other subjects, Cahill said she is committed to acting.

When she wrote essays to apply elsewhere, Cahill said she realized acting was where her heart lay. If she had not been accepted at Tisch, Cahill was prepared to take a gap year to study and work on her craft in New York, where she has family.

Cahill said she cried when she learned she had been accepted and could attend school on schedule.

“Musical theater is where I’m at,” she said.

Sharing is caring!