There aren’t many actresses who could say they “sculpt faces” by day and shape the local theater scene by night.
But that’s the story of leading lady Leanne Hill Carlson of Omaha, who has squeezed in more starring roles, costume changes, and hair colorings than she can count—all while building a family and a medical career.
“I have been so blessed with all the opportunities I’ve had here in Omaha,” Carlson says. “It’s not the plan I would have picked from the beginning, but it’s been amazing.”
That’s a good word for the star performances Carlson has logged since getting her start as a sophomore at Papillion-La Vista High School—one of five times she has played Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof (all requiring dye for hair that is naturally perfect for a lead in Legally Blonde).
Carlson knew she desired a career in musical theater after that role and others in high school that included Sandy in Grease and Ado Annie in Oklahoma. “I had two wonderful teachers who fostered my interest in theater and music,” Carlson says. “I was hooked.”
From there, Carlson pursued a musical theatre degree at Sam Houston State. She was part of the College Light Opera Company, which performed nine shows in 11 weeks on Cape Cod and gave her the chance to play Nellie in South Pacific and Lalume in Kismet.
Carlson had aspirations of making a theatrical run in New York City, “but the cards never turned that way for me,” she says.
Instead, she came home to Omaha and turned an interest in medicine into a master’s of physician assistant studies from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She is a physician assistant at a dermatology clinic and uses her artistic eye to change the faces of Omaha.
“I’ve had a few patients recognize me from the theater,” says Carlson, who also performs regularly as an in-demand vocalist. “They’ve asked me to sing and dance in the office, and I’ve done it a couple times.”
The proverbial go-to leading lady thrives on the big stage. She has played in roles at the Omaha Community Playhouse, The Rose, the Orpheum, and others.
Along with playing the role of Pitti-Sing in Opera Omaha’s The Mikado, Carlson has starred in Annie, 42nd Street, Beauty & the Beast, The Sound of Music, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and has been cast in two movies.
Her favorite theatrical role has been Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, probably because that character most mirrors her personality. “That was so intense,” says Carlson, who is married to physician Mark Carlson and has two children. “I never had a moment off stage, and there were 14 costume changes. But it was so fun!”
Carlson recently had the chance to fly as Mary Poppins in a blockbuster run at The Rose—a feat that went smoothly until the last of 13 songs in her final performance. Carlson was ready to soar when she got stuck in the lights. Making a quick midair maneuver, she avoided a serious mishap and brought down the house.
“The whole cast was waiting for me backstage, and we got a huge ovation,” she says. “It was wonderful—the kind of moment you relish when you love something as much as this.”