News Column

Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill., Jim Vorel column

August 15, 2013

YellowBrix

Aug. 15--SULLIVAN -- There is a crucial moment in almost any stage production where members of the audience can "buy in" to the proceedings.

In a comedy, it's often one particularly good joke or bit that draws a prolonged, audible laugh. The effect of this moment can't be overstated, as it transforms the entire production from this point on. Audiences laugh and react more freely, and actors seem to settle into a comfortable, effortless groove. The amount of pressure is reduced for everyone present.

Sullivan's Little Theatre-On the Square was lucky enough to have a number of these moments in the course of this summer's slate of shows, which wrapped up with the final performance of "Spamalot" last week.

In "Spamalot," that moment arrived somewhere before the end of Act I. In "Anything Goes" it was probably even earlier, during the first big dance number involving everyone in the cast. It's no coincidence that these two shows were probably the standout successes of the season. In terms of their energy and vivaciousness, they compare favorably with anything else The Little Theatre has produced in the past few years.

As for the players, this was a season that seemed to utilize its permanent summer cast a little less heavily than in the past, instead bringing in veteran actors to work two or three shows at a time in a stretch. These included Little Theatre veterans like Sean Zimmerman and Jack Milo, dependable presences that one can confidently build a show around. There were also new faces among the veterans like Marc Pera, who showed good versatility and slowly built an excellent comic presence from "Anything Goes" through "Spamalot."

Among the actual summer cast members, there were also a few stand-outs that come to mind. Kelsey Andres had some excellent roles earlier in the season, including a scene-stealing turn in "Anything Goes." Colin Shea Denniston made his characters recognizable in just about every show. And Jared Titus, in particular, showed some great comedic chops.

This was also, notably, a "season of Shooks," as sisters Kelly and Karla Shook returned to make directing or acting contributions to almost every production. As a director, Kelly Shook handled "The Will Rogers Follies" and "Anything Goes" with aplomb, and as an actress, Karla Shook was called on for most of the diva-type vocal roles in "Will Rogers" and "Spamalot" while also directing "Fiddler on the Roof." It has been rare to see two people have that degree of contribution to the shape of a single season, and they should be credited for much of the "feel" of several shows, particularly in terms of the stand-out choreography and dance of a show like "Anything Goes."

However, this was also a season with major concerns for the future of The Little Theatre. An early ticket shortfall led to the summer season being

dangerously behind pace on generating revenue, requiring a direct call to arms from Little Theatre management. Executive Director John Stephens appears to have done a good job here, choosing transparency in bringing the issue before the season ticketholders and other theater guests. Returns on later shows were encouraging, as were donations, reducing the severity of the shortfall. It was a positive response to a situation that remains troubling, as The Little Theatre joins so many other small professional theaters that are facing serious economic challenges. Ongoing support will continue to be needed from those who responded to Stephens' call for aid.

So was the season "a success," then? Much like the Decatur Celebration, the answer may be "yes," simply because there will be another year of shows. But on their own merits, these shows also had enough of those crucial moments to succeed as both art and entertainment, staking a claim as something worth the financial commitment to preserve. In terms of novelty, the experience is irreplaceable in Central Illinois. There's just nowhere else like The Little Theatre-On the Square.

jvorel@herald-review.com|(217) 421-7973

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(c)2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.)

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