One of these days, Lora Lee Gayer expects to pinch herself and wake up from the dream she is living. The 23-year-old, who grew up in Naples, landed a lead role in “Follies” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., alongside Broadway legend and Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters.
Gayer has trained for this moment since middle school, having performed with the Naples Philharmonic Youth Chorale and Opera Naples before heading to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy and then graduating from Carnegie Melon University with a degree in musical theater.
The reality of her success flooded over Gayer in a stream of tears during the first performance of “Follies” in May as Peters began to speak her opening lines. The play runs at the Kennedy Center until June 19.
“I’ve worked so hard for so many years, and I have ‘made it,’” Gayer said. “I’m onstage with this legend. She’s kind of the queen of Broadway. It’s pretty amazing.”
In “Follies,” Gayer is Young Sally, a youthful version of Peters’ character, Sally Durant Plummer, who is a former showgirl reflecting on bygone days. Gayer flits onstage to relive flashbacks from the heyday of the Follies Theatre.
It wasn’t that long ago Gayer was a little girl watching a Broadway show with her dad, with big dreams of singing and acting onstage — just like every other little girl in the audience.
“I went to my first Broadway production when I was three,” recalled Gayer, who was born in New York City. “It was my birthday, and my dad picked me up in a limo and took me to see ‘Cats.’”
Two decades later, Gayer is onstage with one of the performers she sat on the edge of her seat watching as a wide-eyed preschooler. Elaine Paige, known as “the first lady of musical theatre,” gave life to the old cat Grizabella, performing the classic song “Memories.”
The “Follies” cast not only includes Paige and Peters, it also features acclaimed Broadway performers Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines. Director Eric Schaeffer is hoping to take the show to Broadway after its run at the Kennedy Center.
“We’re all crossing our fingers and our toes hoping this is going to transfer to Broadway,” said Gayer, who is once again living in New York City.
So how did Gayer go from a wide-eyed tot to a professional performer? It turns out she wasn’t just like all the other star-struck little girls. Gayer had a God-given talent: a voice which commanded the attention of several elementary school music teachers. Plus, the girl had spunk.
“She had the edge from the beginning, not only in the power and range of her voice, but she’s just a stage animal,” said Opera Naples founder Steffanie Pearce, who began giving Gayer voice lessons at age 12.
Shortly after moving to Naples in fifth grade, a music teacher recommended Gayer audition for the Philharmonic Youth Chorale. Gayer later connected with Pearce, a world-class opera singer who was in the early stages of bringing operatic theatre to Naples.
“One of my basic missions in forming a real opera company here was we would have outreach programs for kids like Lora Lee who exhibit exceptional talent,” Pearce said. She put Gayer onstage for a solo at Opera Naples’ first event.
Through her training, Gayer has become what is known in musical theatre as a “legitimate singer,” meaning she has been trained classically and is able to sing with a tremendous vocal range.
Although Gayer was born with talent, her success hasn’t happened without effort. “She deserves it,” Pearce said. “She’s worked hard, and she’s stayed very, very focused.”
After attending summer camp at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, Gayer shocked her parents by auditioning for the center’s elite boarding school program to finish out high school. Then, recognizing the importance of landing a good agent, she set her sights on attending prestigious Carnegie Mellon University.
“Lora always led the way,” said her mother, Cindy. “She always had bigger goals than we had for her.”
In 2006, Gayer received a Voices of Naples scholarship, helping defray the cost of pursing musical theater at Carnegie Mellon.
“We are very proud that one of our scholarship winners persisted with her career and has made it to the ‘big time’ on one of her first roles after she graduated,” said Ellen Rindfleisch of Voice of Naples. “Lora Lee is on her way!”
Pearce expects her one-time protege to return to Naples for a future show. “We hope we can have her come back to do a performance with Opera Naples as a returning artist,” Pearce said.
“She’s been so driven and thankful for everything,” Cindy Gayer said, adding failure was never an option or even a concern for Lora Lee. “It’s been a fun ride with her.”