Falls woman makes Broadway debut

Ayla Ciccone-Burton of Niagara Falls, at left, joins her castmates in cheers and waves after a recent performance from the Broadway show “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” on “Good Morning America.” At center, filling in for the Tony-winning star Adrienne Warren, is Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, who will take over the lead in the musical Nov. 2 as Warren moves on to other projects.

Ayla Ciccone-Burton cried on her first day of rehearsals for the Broadway production of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”

The tears were not from joy at having won a dream-come-true spot in the musical story of the “Queen of Rock." They were tears of frustration.

The 26-year-old Niagara Falls High School graduate, who admits to being “kind of a perfectionist,” in her ascending career, was one of just a few performers joining the cast of the acclaimed musical, which opened on Broadway in 2019. Almost everyone else had been in the production for months before it was closed due to COVID-19 in March of 2020 with all other shows in Manhattan’s theater district.

Now, as the musical’s cast was readying to return to Broadway, the young dancer, singer and actress knew she had a lot of catching up to do. Good thing, she had experience behind her, having already performed with the global touring companies of “Dirty Dancing,” and “Book of Mormon.” It only took about a week of rehearsals before her confidence bloomed.

So, backstage, on opening night, Oct. 8, with her mother, grandmother and two of her best friends in the audience, she cried tears of joy as her long-held dream hit the lights of Broadway and she stepped out onto the stage.

“It was surreal,” she said of her debut among a cast led by recent Tony winner Adrienne Warren, who plays the iconic Tina Turner with a powerhouse voice and signature dance moves critics have raved about.

The new-to-the-cast performer was graciously welcomed by Warren and the other cast members who presented her with gifts for her debut as a member of Turner’s backup singers, the Ikettes.

Ciccone-Burton’s role includes seven different wig changes and even more costume changes, some undertaken in under two minutes backstage.

The whirlwind of activity behind the scenes helped her to release a bit of her perfectionism, she said, because sometimes a performer has no choice but to return to the scene without a costume piece or every hair in place.

“It’s live theater. You just have to do your best,” she explains with a wisdom that seems earned. Then she laughs and adds, “But, it’s also Broadway, so it usually doesn’t go wrong.”

The performer began preparing for her recent stage triumph at a very young age, said her mom, Christa Ciccone, a chemistry and college level forensic teacher at Niagara Falls High School.

As a child, Ayla took voice, dance and piano lessons, and even modeled a bit for Fisher Price toy packaging. She was still in grade school when she starred in a Niagara Falls High School production of “Annie Jr.,” and during her years at NFHS, she acted, danced and sang in a variety small and large roles under the guidance of supportive music and drama teachers, especially Linda Werder and Kate Muldoon.

Ayla went on to study music in Ireland and England, where she met a friend from New York who helped her get an agent, and then landed her first audition and a role in the touring company of “Dirty Dancing.” After that, she joined the ensemble and was an understudy for every female cast member in the touring company of “The Book of Mormon.”

“She’s always been confident, outgoing, the opposite of me” her mom recalled, adding that watching Ayla travel the world and grab hold of her dreams has inspired her.

“She’s broadened my world quite a bit,” Christa said.

Also impressed by Ayla is her long-time dance teacher, Courtney Dunstan Glenn of Janet Dunstan’s Dance Academy, who was just a teen herself when she started working with Ayla and watched the youngster’s star grow bright.

“I knew at 3-years-old she was going to be an amazing dancer. I knew at 5-years-old she was destined to be in musical theater. She sang from the ‘Lion King’ for me and belted it out like she was Aretha Franklin,” Dunstan Glenn said.

Ayla never forgets her roots, her dance teacher added, noting, “Every time she comes home, she comes to the studio and either takes a class or teaches some of my students.”

Featured recently in a recent New York Times story about young performers waiting to debut on Broadway after the 17-month long Covid hiatus, Ayla admitted that at times during lockdown, she simply hoped to get a ticket to a show when Broadway reopened.

The greatest lesson, she says, is that it is possible to manifest your dreams if you take the time to do the work. “I’ve been saying for years that Broadway’s the goal and was very much also aware that I couldn’t go straight to it, that I had to take small steps to get there and work my way up.”

She has a good role model in Warren, the show’s star. Ayla recalled how Warren, after receiving a Tony for her portrayal of Tina Turner, sought out her fellow performers instead of spending time with the glitterati.

"She won the Tony and she came back and hung out with our cast down the street. She let us touch the Tony and said ‘Guys, now manifest yours.’ Every day since the first day of rehearsal she gives 150 percent. She is a great leader and an unreal performer.”

Warren is leaving the production Nov. 2 to pursue a TV and movie career and will be replaced by Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, who has performed as Tina on Broadway and in London.

Warren's rocket to stardom has inspired Ayla, who is aiming much higher now. She, too, has her eye on doing television and movies one day. “I’ve realized my dreams have been getting bigger as my journey is continuing,” she said.

The show, “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” continues on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre at 205 West 46th St. in Manhattan.

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