CARLSBAD — Now living in New York, Carlsbad native Alisa Melendez has played Penny Lane in the stage adaptation of “Almost Famous,” Mimi in “Rent,” and now Sophie Sheridan in the national touring production of “Mamma Mia!”
But at heart, she’s a San Diego girl.
After moving to New York in 2016, Melendez returned home to perform as Sophie in the touring cast of “Mamma Mia!” from Nov. 7 through 12 at the San Diego Civic Theater. The award-winning musical is set on a Greek island and features the hits of ’70s pop group ABBA.
“San Diegans have always been at my shows, been at my local community theater things before I, whatever you call it, made it big or moved to the big city,” Melendez said. “To return and bring this to them is the biggest gift.”
Raised in North County, Melendez performed in community theater and took the train to performing arts schools to follow her passion. After one year at Coronado High School, Melendez spent the remainder of her high school career at Orange County School of the Arts.
Her dream of becoming an actress and singer brought her to New York, where she landed her first Broadway role as a college junior at Pace University.
Throughout Melendez’s young but fruitful career, San Diego has been a strong character, just as the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi is in “Mamma Mia!”
“I’m able to do what I’ve always wanted, which is to bring it back to San Diego and return to my island,” she said.
The musical and her beloved hometown have weaved together through her life in almost eerie ways.
“Mamma Mia!” was the first Broadway show her parents ever saw. Melendez said the soundtrack CD they brought back for her formed a love for theater and a bond with her parents.
“They saw what I wanted to do and that I was really good at this,” she said.
For her 16th birthday, Melendez begged her mom to see “Mamma Mia!” on its tour. So they drove up to San Francisco to watch it.
“I also grew up with ABBA and those songs,” Melendez said. “They’d wake me up with ‘Dancing Queen’ blasting through the house. And ‘Chiquitita’ has been such a big song; she’ll play it when I’m sad, and my best friends and I always play it when we’re going through something. It’s so close to home for me.”
While Melendez was still in school in New York, she taped her audition for “Almost Famous” in San Diego between maid of honor duties for her best friend’s wedding.
When her professor shared the opportunity, “I was like, ‘No, I can’t; I’m literally doing a wedding,” Melendez said. “Then I’m like, ‘Wait, this is ‘Almost Famous,’ it’s like the best movie in the world, right? Let’s watch it.’ I watched it, taped it that night, sent it and then did the wedding.”
The next day, she flew back to New York for her callback, arriving extremely late and soaking wet, but her performance was enough to get her a swing role.
“Almost Famous” held its tryout — a performance at an out-of-town venue before a Broadway premiere — at The Old Globe, less than 10 miles from Coronado High School.
The convergence of Melendez’s love for theater and San Diego culminated in getting the role of Sophie Sheridan in the Broadway touring show, which she said is a less dramatic audition story than Almost Famous.
On the same day she was offered the role of Sophie, she was cast as Mimi in “Rent,” which she performed over the summer at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
Melendez took all of that experience and poured it into her latest performance.
“I’m not your conventional Sophie,” Melendez said. “Sophie was usually maybe a smaller blonde, white girly, you know? It’s a really beautiful, really diverse cast. We’re bringing fresh new things to what Mamma Mia! is, and I think it’s going to be really exciting for people to see maybe some things that they’re not expecting.”
The tour makes its next stop at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles from Nov. 14 to Dec. 3 and will continue across America until September of next year.
“My biggest thing about doing a tour is providing joy to those who can’t make it to New York, especially the joy of Mamma Mia!, especially right now,” Melendez said. “We need it, and it is so much fun.”