Samantha Mbolekwa is making her West End debut in Dear Evan Hansen at the Noël Coward Theatre, understudying the roles of Alana Beck and Zoe Murphy, and she performed for the first time as part of the company at West End Live last summer as Alana. Before joining Dear Evan Hansen, Samantha’s most recent musical was the RENT: 20th Anniversary Tour in the USA and Canada in the role of Joanne Jefferson and she trained at The Young Americans College of the Performing Arts. We caught up with Samantha who talks to us about joining the cast of Dear Evan Hansen, making her West End debut since moving to England and her time as Joanne Jefferson in the RENT: 20th Anniversary USA/Canada Tour.
You are currently in the cast of Dear Evan Hansen as understudy Alana Beck and Zoe Murphy, how does it feel to be making your West End debut with the show?
The best word that comes to mind, when I think about the fact that I am making my West End debut in Dear Evan Hansen, has to be surreal. I had made a vision board in March 2020 when the pandemic brought my most previous job to a halt and on that vision board I had “book a West End show”. So after over a year of uncertainty, planning and working on myself, it truly is surreal (and rewarding).
How much did you know about the musical before auditioning?
I knew as much as I could grasp from listening to the cast album on repeat since it was released.
At last year’s West End Live, you performed alongside the rest of the cast as Alana, how was this experience?
Performing alongside the cast as Alana at West End Live was the biggest pinch me moment of my career so far. They were extremely welcoming to me being the only new castmate at the time and it truly was an unforgettable experience. Looking out into Trafalgar Square and seeing hundreds upon hundreds of faces beaming out there was so special. Hearing the audience singing along with us was incredible too.
Most recently, you had been playing Joanne Jefferson on the RENT: 20th Anniversary Tour in the USA/Canada, what was the character like to play?
Playing Joanne Jefferson in RENT was a huge learning experience for me. I’ve always enjoyed contemporary musicals because I felt most seen and as if I can relate to the music, characters and stories and RENT was the first musical that hooked my interest. Joanne Jefferson is a clever, brave and hard-working woman who really was a bridge between multiple worlds that all the characters in the show are from and so stepping into the shoes was a great honour.
How was it touring with the production and being in the cast?
Touring with the production, as well as the cast, was such a great experience. The cast was so lovely, I made lifelong friends in that cast and I got to see so much of the USA and parts of my home country, Canada, that I hadn’t yet seen.
Do you have any stand-out moments from your time in RENT?
Well, one of the first ones that comes to mind was when Michael Grief walked into our rehearsal room on Day 1 of rehearsals as we were learning Seasons of Love. All of us were pretty starstruck to be in a room with him… full circle to getting to work with him here in London for Dear Evan Hansen. Another stand-out moment from my time in RENT was when we went to Ottawa, Canada and my family saw me perform for the first time in over a decade.
What is your favourite aspect of working on cruises and can you tell us about some of the projects you’ve performed in for Norwegian Cruise Lines?
My favourite aspect of working on cruises would definitely be the combination of getting to travel to so many different countries all while doing what I love to do, which is performing. Working for NCL was such a good start for me in my professional career. We typically learned three different shows plus two cabarets and those would make up our work schedules. My favourite show was the rock music one. Celine Dion, Tina Turner and Carole King are just a few artists whose music we performed and they’re just a few of many big musical inspirations of mine.
Had you always wanted a musical career and what encouraged you to train at The Young Americans College of the Performing Arts?
Growing up I had always loved singing and grew up around it. My mum and sisters all sing beautifully (my dad not so much… sorry, Dad) and I often travelled with them as my mum and older sister would sing in singing contests. They always did so well in the competitions but I was too afraid to participate myself. There was always a voice in my head telling me I was just as capable and worthy of being up on a stage too, but I struggled with stage fright up until I was 16. Once I was 16 I auditioned for The Young Americans College of the Performing Arts and that’s where I truly knew I wanted a career in MT.
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I love this question! While I absolutely love my career, the first thing I do to “spend time away” from it is to travel. My family and I all live so spread out from each other so I do my best to visit my family. Now that I’m living in London I think I’ll have to book a few holidays to some neighbouring countries as well.
Have you been given any advice over the years that has stuck with you?
I have a few pieces of advice and knowledge that have been shared with me that have stuck with me. One of my vocal teachers from 2011 told me one thing to help calm my stage fright was that the people who come to see your shows are there to feel something. We all look to art as an outlet to express or observe emotions that we all feel deep down, but not all of us have the outlets to release them. So, as an actor, it’s our jobs to invite them in and allow them to tap in.
Another piece of advice I got is to “go to the source”. I found this advice very helpful when I was new to the industry and I still do now. If you’re ever experiencing conflict or confusion at work, go to the source and sort it out from there.
What are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
I haven’t seen a ton of theatre however I have seen some amazing theatre shows. Hamilton is an absolute work of art and that is the most recent show that I loved watching. I’m really looking forward to seeing Moulin Rouge! next.
Was there anything that drew you to performing in the West End and how are you finding your time in London so far?
When I first visited London in 2019 on holiday with my older sister, we saw SIX and after being IN the West End and having the experience of being an audience member at such an entertaining show, I just felt such a hunger to be up on a West End stage myself. It’s been seven months since living in London and I absolutely love it. Being a performer, we often “live out of suitcases” for so long and sometimes that challenges us to feel like somewhere specific is “home”. When I am with my family, I am of course at home however, in terms of finding a city I love that allows me to do a job I love, London has been just that for me.
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