MIAMI, Okla. — Desiree Dillon was singing at her church’s Christmas program and, tasked to solo the second verse of “Away in a Manger,” belted out “no crying he makes” and “stay by the cradle till morning is night” without a single vocal mishap.
Dillon was just 4 years old.
“I also remember in kindergarten the following year, we students would sit on the floor together and sing songs. I, however, would be belting out the tunes, and kids would move away from me,” the Miami, Oklahoma, native said, laughing. “But that didn’t stop me.”
By age 7, Dillon would be “fully immersed” and focused on a professional career as a singer and dancer. While many professional desires by 4- or 7-year-olds are forgotten in short order, Dillon never lost sight of her dreams of performing one day on a Broadway stage.
Now living in New York City, she’s singing, acting and dancing as a cast member in the national tour of Broadway’s “Finding Neverland.” The show will be performed live at Pittsburg State University’s Bicknell Center for the Arts later this month.
“I believe everyone is born with dreams in their hearts,” she said. “Whether you’re from Miami, Oklahoma, or Miami, Florida, opportunities are all around you, and it’s up to you to choose what to make of those opportunities and how far you’re willing to go to achieve them,” said Dillon, who is now in her 30s.
Performing in Pittsburg is a coveted chance for Dillon to showcase her talents close to home, with Miami less than an hour drive away. That’s one of the reasons she signed the contract to do “Finding Neverland” in the first place.
“I’ve been performing at sea on cruise lines and in regional theaters around the country for the last 10 years, so it makes me feel so honored to get to finally perform for my local folks again.”
The last time she performed a musical in the Joplin metro area was 2005’s “The Wizard of Oz,” a sold-out Miami Little Theatre production.
“Being able to perform on my home turf, I feel, will be a true mark of success to me,” Dillon said. “One of my goals is to continue bringing home more musical theater.”
Saying she was blessed “to have both a good support system and a good moral foundation” during the early stages of her career, two people made huge and important personal impacts, she said, that are still felt today. The first was her father, Danny Dillon.
“I can see pride in his eyes whenever I perform,” she said of her father, who is the managing director of the iconic Coleman Theatre in downtown Miami and an award-winning theater teacher at Miami High School. “But I truly could not be more proud of him. I think it can be easy to make your own kids feel (confident), but to see other people’s kids saying that to my dad brings tears to my eyes.”
Her other inspiration is Midwest Regional Ballet’s founder and artistic director Kaye Lewis, someone she calls “one in a million.” Lewis was Dillon’s dance teacher from age 6, when she participated in her first MRB production, “Snow White,” wearing a bumblebee costume.
“I may not have been the most flexible or the most physically fit dancer ... but she always made me embrace my uniqueness and helped me believe what I had to offer was special,” Dillon said.
Following her graduation from Miami High School and Oklahoma City University, Dillon moved to New York City in 2010 and has appeared in regional productions of “Mary Poppins,” “Anything Goes,” “Smokey Joe’s Café” and on the Disney Cruise Ship line. She is the winner of the 2010 International Crescendo Music Award and the 2016 Mario Lanza and Elaine Malbin Vocal Competition in NYC.
In the “Finding Neverland” production, Dillon plays the shows antagonist, Mrs. Du Maurier, who is the grandmother of the real-life children who inspired the children’s characters in “Peter Pan.”
For those wanting to play on Broadway and travel the country, Dillon said it’s a job that’s not for the faint of heart.
“I face rejection all the time, and it’s something hard to keep showing up at auditions, especially if you know that casting director behind the table has already told you no on several occasions,” Dillon said. “But you never know when your yes will come. That’s what drives me.
“There is a fine line between confidence and humility,” she continued, “but I believe I can walk that line well and stay in my lane, focusing on my own path, trying to be a positive influence wherever I am and not compare myself to others.”