From Manlius Pebble Hill to Manhattan: Syracuse native sizzled in ‘Summer’ on Broadway
This story was produced for The Goldring Arts Journalism program at Syracuse University.
By Lyle Michael
During Mackenzie Bell’s third grade year at Manlius Pebble Hill, she choreographed a routine to “She Works Hard for the Money.” The steps may now be hazy, but the memory still brings a smile to her face.
“I would choreograph most of Donna (Summer)’s routines as a child,” Bell said. “I feel I have this strong connection with her thanks to my mother, who is a big fan of her songs.”
Bell spent all of 2018 performing on Broadway as an ensemble member in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” which premiered last April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway.
Her social media accounts indicate a new adventure for 2019, but Bell said she realized many dreams during her third Broadway performance, starting with “Pippin” in 2005 and “Sunset Boulevard” in 2017.
Her role in “Summer” included stage time as American music mogul David Geffen. An all-female ensemble plays the supporting male roles, while the only five males in the show portray the men in Summer’s life.
“It’s a 1970s kind of androgynous vibe, an interesting take on a jukebox musical,” said Bell. “It’s a show about a powerful woman, women’s rights and how Donna fought for equality herself.”
This is where the vision and craftsmanship of Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff shows through. Bell was well accustomed to his direction; they also worked together on “Jersey Boys” in 2005).
Bell was familiar with choreographer Sergio Trujillo as well, having also worked with him in “Jersey Boys,” and the national tour of “Flashdance the Musical” from 2013 to 2015.
“The choreography is the best part of “Summer,” as it’s high energy,” said Bell. “It’s set in that time of the disco era, yet it’s contemporary. It’s grounded and cool.”
A life of dance
Bell, a girl who hails from Westcott Street in Syracuse, literally grew up dancing.
Days spent at her mother’s dance studio led to a major in music theater with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Elon University in North Carolina; she made her Broadway debut five years later.
“I was in the middle of my “Flashdance” tour, and I got a callback for “Pippin,” and that was it,” Bell said.
She left the “Flashdance” tour and started training for the role of a player and as understudy to the three female lead characters, Fastrada, Berthe and Catherine.
The dream was happening, and Bell owed it most to one person above all: Linda Bell, her mother and the owner of CNY Dance Studio.
It was the training Mackenzie received as a child that gave her the foundation she needed, said Linda, who formerly trained Syracuse University cheerleaders and has been running her studio for 35 years.
“I believe any child interested in theatre must have strong training in dance as it is vital in an ensemble,” said Linda.
Being a part of the ensemble in shows has been a conscious learning experience for Bell, whether it was as a child in “Gypsy” at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, or her performances in “Sweet Charity” and “Guys & Dolls” at Manlius Pebble Hill.
Deborah Pearson, co-founder at Syracuse Children’s Theatre, was one of the first to recognize Bell’s potential.
“I’ve known Mackenzie since she was eight or nine,” said Pearson. “She acted in many shows at the theater and I knew this young lady had it all; acting, singing, dancing. She was ahead of her age, responsible and hardworking.”
Prof. Michael Schoonmaker, chair of the Television, Radio and Film program at the Newhouse School of Public Communications said Bell’s personality was a very shy one back in Edward Smith elementary school on Lancaster Avenue.
“I taught Mackenzie in my first kindergarten class,” he said. “She was in the beginning of my journey. We knew that if we put on the camera, she would see herself as a performer. And she did.”
Focus and perseverence
Bell was just like any other teenager who came home from school and got to her homework late, but she was always focused. She worked with ardor and persevered to get to where she is.
Broadway is no walk in the park, but it’s the pure adrenaline that keeps Bell going. For “Summer,” the cast performed eight shows a week, every day except Monday.
“It is grueling, but I love the buzz,” she said last fall. “The rehearsals and the show itself make for great cardio, add to that Pilates, and – would you believe it – my dressing room is on the fifth floor.”
It’s a bonus that Bell can sing, and continuing vocal lessons are imperative in her career as a performer. Bell considered it a privilege to lend her voice to Summer’s songs on the Broadway album released for the musical; not to mention an unforgettable experience performing at the 2018 Tony Awards.
“Performing (at the Tony Awards) was the highlight of my life so far,” she said.
In addition to being a perennial student of the arts, Bell is a musical and dance teacher. She trains youngsters at Joffrey Ballet School in New York City during the summer intensive courses and conducts workshops for her current shows.
“I taught at my mom’s studio before and while I was touring with ‘Flashdance,'” she said. “I love teaching and being able to share what I’ve learned.”
After a long day, Bell looks forward to getting away from the mania of Manhattan to the quiet of Jersey City, where she recently relocated. Once home, she is greeted by her poodle shih-tzu mix, Sadie, and indulges in some TV time. She finds serenity in her walks with Sadie – and in a juicy piece of steak.
“I find walking on Brooklyn Bridge bliss,” she said.