A Hairless Cat and Nickelback. What Could Be More Romantic?


On Sept. 26, 2021, Colin Ernest Barkell spotted Kayla Dianne Pecchioni stroking her hairless kitten at a screening of the Tony Awards. He was instantly attracted. Especially to the cat.

In the lounge of the Chicago apartment building where theater fans had gathered for the show, “I was like, ‘I need to see this guy’,” he said of the creature. By the time “Moulin Rouge!” had racked up its final award that night, he was halfway in love with the blanket-swaddled kitten in Ms. Pecchioni’s arms. Three nights later, he fell fully in love with Ms. Pecchioni.

Mr. Barkell and Ms. Pecchioni, who reside in Harlem, are performing artists. She is currently the swing role and an understudy for the character Sugar Kane in Broadway’s “Some Like It Hot.” Before he formed the rock band King Vaudeville last year, he was a professional Irish dancer.

Their meet-up in the lobby of Marquee at Block 37 apartments was not random: That September, both had been cast in “Paradise Square,” a musical that started its run in Chicago before moving to Broadway in April 2022. Each had made their way to the lobby for the Tonys screening with their castmates 12 days into rehearsals.

For Ms. Pecchioni, 31, the viewing party had given rise to dueling instincts. “It was our first opportunity to hang out as a cast, which was great,” she said. But the gathering in an unfamiliar city with a roomful of newish faces was also anxiety producing. Paw McCatney, the kitten she had adopted four months earlier as an emotional support animal to help her through the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, helped with that. A hairless cat, she said, is a reliable conversation starter.

“It’s 50-50 for people,” she said. “They’re either, ‘I’m very intrigued!’ or ‘Get that thing away from me.’” That Mr. Barkell so instantly placed himself in the former category qualified him as new friend material right away.

Ms. Pecchioni is from Louisville, Ky. Until she was 4, she lived with her maternal grandparents, Andrea and Frank Pecchioni, so her mother, Deedee Cummings, could finish her bachelor’s degree at Bennett College. “I had this fun hippie life with my grandparents,” she said. “We’d garden and listen to the Beatles. It was very, very lovely.”

Soon after Ms. Cummings earned her diploma and returned to Louisville, she met Ms. Pecchioni’s stepfather, Anthony Cummings. She has two younger brothers, Anthony II and Nicholas.

Two years of performing on Norwegian Cruise Line cruises followed, something she could have done forever, she said. “The only thing that broke me out of it was my mom kind of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, ‘You have bigger goals.’”

In 2016, she moved to Inwood, in Manhattan, and days later booked her first gig as a singer with the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. A year later, she landed a leading role playing Nabulungi in “The Book of Mormon.”

In lean times, before she was cast in “Paradise Square,” she worked retail jobs at stores including Lululemon. Her social life didn’t slip through the cracks. “I dated a lot” in New York she said. “But I always dated with the intention of finding my person, and nothing ever really stuck.”

On Tonys night in Chicago, she didn’t see Mr. Barkell as a potential boyfriend. She had noticed him on day one of rehearsals, first because of his height — Mr. Barkell is six-foot-six — and then because of his baritone voice, which everyone else paid attention to, too. “It’s something the entire room took notice of, like ‘Who is this person?’” she said. But “I was like, he’s just a guy, you know?’” Once he had established his appreciation for Paw McCatney, he became just a guy she trusted enough to escort her on a sightseeing tour around Chicago.

Mr. Barkell, 32, was born in Long Beach, Calif., and moved to Sterling, Va., with his parents, Leland and Nancy Barkell, and older sister, Erin, at the start of high school for his father’s career as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines. Though the family is “barely Irish,” he said, he had taken a few Irish dance lessons before he left California. As a teenager, he picked it up again, enrolling in classes at the Maple Academy of Irish Dance in nearby Vienna.

“It was something I really loved to do, even though it’s not necessarily something that comes naturally to a tall person because there’s balance and coordination involved,” he said.

At first he struggled to find his footing. But by 2012, when he moved to Galway, Ireland, for two years to further his dance studies, he had won multiple regional championships. A year later, he placed eighth in the World Irish Dancing Championships. His 2016 bachelor’s degree in geography and geographical information sciences from George Mason University took him seven years to complete. “I kept leaving to do dance,” he said.

Like Ms. Pecchioni, he performed on cruise lines after college and later bounced between New York and Nashville working as a dancer and singer. Then, in 2021, “I got this crazy opportunity to be in a Broadway show, which wasn’t on my radar as something to pursue,” he said. The opportunity landed because of his background: “Paradise Square,” set in the Civil War era, is about an intersecting community of free Black people and Irish immigrants in New York’s Five Points neighborhood.

On meeting Ms. Pecchioni in Chicago, his first thought wasn’t that they should date. “It’s such a roller coaster,” he said of his career, that dating anyone with intention seemed nearly impossible. But he changed his mind quickly on Sept. 29, when he arrived at her temporary digs for their tour of the city.

Mr. Barkell gets choked up at the memory of the music she was playing when he knocked. “No way,” he said, when she opened the door. “You’re playing Nickelback?” Ms. Pecchioni braced herself for what she thought would be a polarizing conversation. “For whatever reason, it’s always been fun for people to hate Nickelback,” she said. But “I frigging love Nickelback.” Same with Mr. Barkell: “I said, ‘These guys have had hit after hit. They’re bangers. They should be respected.’”

Ms. Pecchioni describes herself as “a big music person.” Hence Paw McCatney, a nod to her lifelong love of the Beatles, introduced to her by her grandparents. Mr. Barkell is also a Beatles fan. But both consider the Nickelback moment a defining one.

“That was the spark,” she said. “There was a quick switch where it went from getting to know each other to something else.” At Chicago’s Riverwalk, over beers at the Northman Beer & Cider Garden, they established that both were single. Before they walked home, he kissed her. Then “it was, I’m going to spend every day with her. I knew it and I very nearly said that,” he said.

A week and a half later, he told her he was in love with her. “A day after that I said, ‘So, you want to be my girlfriend?’” Falling for Ms. Pecchioni had delivered him clarity. “For me it was, ‘Oh, so this is what it’s supposed to feel like.’” Ms. Pecchioni felt the same.

“Paradise Square” ran in Chicago until early December. For the holidays, the couple road tripped to Nashville, where Mr. Barkell was performing with a band that predated King Vaudeville, and then to Louisville and Calumet, Mich., where Mr. Barkell’s parents had retired. Both had given their families a heads-up about the seriousness of their romance. A sense of instant acceptance greeted them in both hometowns. “Everything naturally fell into place,” Ms. Pecchioni said. “That’s the theme of our whole relationship.”

When the show made its Broadway debut last year, Mr. Barkell moved into Ms. Pecchioni and Paw’s Harlem apartment. When it closed in July, he was already planning to propose. His parents knew a jeweler in Michigan who helped him design a diamond and blue topaz toi et moi ring; on Oct. 3, after a night spent performing Irish dance at a charity event at Chelsea Factory, he presented it in their living room.

“He was crying and I was screaming,” Ms. Pecchioni said. Her excitement aside, it wasn’t the proposal she had imagined. In her fantasy version, she looked down at her suitor as he dropped to one knee. In real life, “he’s so tall we were still eye-to-eye.”

On Oct. 8, Ms. Pecchioni and Mr. Barkell were married at Hazelnut Farm in Louisville. Derwin Webb, a Pecchioni family friend and a judge of the Jefferson County Court, officiated a traditional ceremony for 140 guests that included several former “Paradise Square” castmates.

When Mr. Webb pronounced them married, they looked out on a sea of damp-eyed, cheering loved ones. With a double-fist bump and happy tears of their own, the couple recessed down the grassy aisle to what both considered the role of a lifetime: as partners for life.

When Oct. 8, 2023

Where Hazelnut Farm, Louisville, Ky.

They’re the Tops At a cocktail hour steps from the altar, guests were shown Southern hospitality in the form of a grazing table piled with fresh fruit, cheeses and caviar. For dinner, they chose from beef tenderloin and chicken piccata. Dessert was a strawberry cake topped with a Polaroid picture of the couple in their wedding clothes (a Martina Liana gown for her; a black tuxedo for him). “We always wanted to look like the cake topper couple at our wedding,” Ms. Pecchioni said.

Step Lively After the couple danced with their parents, a dance floor was cleared for an Irish dance session led by Mr. Barkell. More than a dozen guests joined in, with Ms. Pecchioni making a late entrance to dance her way into the heart of the group.

From Day 1 Kennedy Caughell, a “Paradise Square” castmate and wedding guest, was there the night the couple bonded at the 2021 Tony Awards. Back in Chicago, “I watched their love grow from this kind of nervous affection for each other to falling head over heels,” she said. As a couple, “they heat up a room.”


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