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Neighbors: Stage presence

Will Kimball has a knack for making people smile – at the time they need it the most. “There’s nothing better than bringing laughter and light to others,” he said. “I get to do it every day at my job.”

Shortly after moving to Maui two-and-a-half years ago, Kimball was hired as a patient transporter in the medical oncology unit at Maui Memorial Medical Center. To say he loves his job would be an understatement. “I get to help people . . . and be a part of their lives at a time when they are feeling vulnerable and uncertain,” Kimball explained. “The best part is being able to put an arm around their shoulders and tell them, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ “

Earlier this year, during one of his shifts at the hospital, Kimball met Dr. Virgie Cantorna, who immediately took notice of the his rich, baritone voice. “People often tell me, ‘You have a big voice,’ ” Kimball said; Cantorna was no exception. “She asked if I was a singer,” Kimball recalled. “I told her I had some experience.”

This piqued Cantorna’s interest – so much, in fact, she decided to Google Kimball. That’s when she discovered something extraordinary: Kimball had been a professional opera singer before he moved to Maui.

Cantorna, who serves as the president of the Maui Academy of Performing Arts board of directors, didn’t waste any time urging Kimball to try out for MAPA Live’s production of “Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical.”

“She told me, ‘You have to audition for this new musical,’ ” he said.

Kimball says he was initially reluctant to try out. “I was taking a break from performing,” he said. “I’d settled into a routine – go to work, go to the gym, go to sleep, repeat – so I didn’t think I’d have time for it.” But after giving it some thought, he called MAPA and added his name to the audition list.

To his surprise, Kimball landed the lead role – or, more specifically, roles – in the production. He was cast to play the eponymous Dr. Henry Jekyll and his sinister alter ego, Mr. Edward Hyde.

“I had no idea they would consider me for the lead,” he said. Since then, Kimball said he’s found a new family at MAPA. “Everyone has been tremendously supportive,” he said. “I’ve never met a group of people so willing to laugh and so devoted to one another – it’s a true ohana.”

The Seattle native made his singing debut at the age of 11. “There was one rule in my house,” Kimball said. “I could play any sport, but I also had to do something artistic at the same time.” So, that year, he joined the lacrosse team – and the school choir. “Before I started singing in the choir, I never knew I had the ability to sing,” he said. “But I was told I was good at it . . . and it took off from there.”

Kimball eventually signed up for voice lessons and began singing at his church. During his sophomore year of high school, the church’s music minister encouraged him to give opera a try. “I said, ‘OK, why not?’ ” he said. “So I moved to a voice teacher for opera who mentored me and taught me how to produce a voice that’s healthy and beautiful.”

In the years that followed, Kimball competed in dozens of opera competitions across the country and was a national finalist in the Metropolitan Opera Council National Auditions in 1996 and 1998. “I did well,” he said. “I realized, ‘I can do this.’ “

That’s when Kimball decided to go “all in” as an opera singer. After high school, he studied music education at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix on a full-ride scholarship and went on to pursue a master’s degree in music from Baylor University in Texas. After working for several years as a schoolteacher and serving in the U.S. Navy, he earned a second master’s degree in music theater and opera performance through Arizona State University’s Lyric Opera Theater.

Over the years, Kimball has performed in more than 150 musical productions, and as a 6-foot-5 bass baritone, he says he tends to play the bad guy. (Kimball explored his “dark side” for the first time when he was cast as “Judd” in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”) “No, I don’t take it personally,” he laughed. “It’s always fun to play the villain.”

In 2002, Kimball hit the road as a professional opera singer, gracing stages worldwide (including several performances in Italy, opera’s birthplace). “I made the decision to dive into it all the way,” he said. “I gave it my blood, sweat and tears.”

But after eight years of living out of a suitcase, Kimball says he was ready for some stability in his life. “It was an amazing experience, and when I look back on my life, I can say ‘I did it,’ ” he said. “But it starts to grind on you after a while.”

So, Kimball packed his things and hopped on a flight to Maui, and now, three years later, he says he’s exactly where he needs to be.

Kimball said he plans to do more musical theater after the final curtain call for “Jekyll & Hyde.” He says his voice is a musical instrument that he carries with him every day – and he will play it as long as he possibly can. “It’s a mystical, spiritual thing to share my voice with others,” Kimball said “It’s a great gift.”

MAPA Live’s production of “Jekyll and Hyde” opens tonight and runs through Aug. 14 in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. To purchase tickets for “Jekyll and Hyde,” visit www.mauiarts.org or call (808) 242-7469.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer and instructor at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.