GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Dustin Sullivan of 'Little House on the Prairie, The Musical'
Dustin Sullivan makes his professional debut as an ensemble member in Little House on the Prairie, The Musical, now kicking off its national tour at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. Most of his previous roles have been featured or principal, in both musicals and nonmusicals.
Which is not to say he hasn't earned some gypsy cred, as he's been an itinerant and multifaceted performer. He's done Shakespeare, a rock opera based on Shakespeare, children's theater, offbeat contemporary musicals, brand-new dramas, and comedies full of cross dressing, slapstick and improv. Work has taken him from Alaska to London and various points in between, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Appropriately, wanderlust is at the heart of Little House on the Prairie, with its cast of frontiersmen and women. Based on Laura Ingalls Wilder's uber-popular series of books, the Little House musical had its world premiere last year at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. From Paper Mill—where it's running through Oct. 10—it heads back to the Twin Cities (the Ordway in St. Paul, Oct. 13-25) and then is slated to visit more than 20 places across the U.S. on a tour lasting into next June.
Sullivan, who was not in the Guthrie production, can be seen in Little House at the head of the wagon train, reins in hand, in the opening scene. His roles also include a square-dancing Fourth of July reveler, preacher at the Ingallses' church and a young pioneer father holding his baby. On the road, he'll be understudying the part of Almanzo Wilder (Kevin Massey), the young man Laura Ingalls eventually marries.
For Sullivan, the Little House tour is a welcome immersion into musicals, which he's done only intermittently as a professional. "I was all about musicals in high school," he explains, "and then I was accepted as an acting major in college—not musical theater—so I took that route for a while. But I realized a lot of the work is in musicals so I had to work my way back into it."
The Ithaca, N.Y., native chose to stay in his hometown for college, but he didn't get into Ithaca College's musical theater program. "Some of the professors at IC told me my senior year that in some ways I was lucky, that my voice didn't get tampered with in any way and sounds genuine and natural," says Sullivan. "I like the sound of that, but I sure could have used some more training hitting those high notes." He adds that being rejected as a musical theater major "gave me a complex about my voice, which is why I only started really gunning for musicals these past couple of years."
He still has a bit of a complex about his dancing, however. "Definitely not a triple threat," he confesses. But he's gotten just the kind of guidance he needs from Little House choreographer Michele Lynch. "One of the nicest parts of this show is to have worked 90 percent with the choreographer," Sullivan says. "The director is off working with the principals and making sure this is all working. Michele and her assistant, Eric [Sean Fogel], were the most patient, patient people. I get so worried about doing things right. The first two days after I learn any dance routine, there's this constant look of horror on my face. They really helped us through it, there was no condescension and 'Why do you look so terrible doing that?' She made the show so much more fun to be a part of. I felt secure."
Dancing shouldn't be such a stretch for Sullivan since he's done a lot of physical comedy as a member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the troupe—best known for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)—that condenses massive source material into a fast-moving parody enacted by three men. Last fall he was on their U.S. tour of The Complete History of America (abridged), and earlier he performed in All the Great Books (abridged) at San Jose Rep and St. Louis Rep, in Alaska and on an Ireland tour.
"I'm the man-child character," Sullivan says of his place in the Reduced Shakespeare universe. "There's always the archetypes: the coach-type character, the intellectual and then just the idiot. I'm that guy. So I tend to wear most of the dresses. Everyone ends up in a dress, but I wear most of them, and the stupidest things come out of my mouth."
Though he spent much of the past two years doing Reduced Shakespeare plays, Little House will be his first extended run in any show. Yet some things about the Little House experience are familiar to Sullivan—like acting in a stage adaptation of a literary classic. With Reduced Shakespeare, he ran through 70-plus of them every night in All the Great Books. Sullivan is also not new to stage adaptations of children's literary classics: He's appeared off-Broadway in productions of Anne of Green Gables (a musical) and The Summer of the Swans. And it's not the first time he's played Middle American country folk: He portrayed such a role in his last musical, Mark Twain's A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage, which was produced by Two River Theatre Co. of New Jersey in 2008.
That typecasting has even occurred offstage, Sullivan reveals. He says that in prior shows, castmates have nicknamed him Golden Boy and Wonder Boy because of his all-American-ness: "I look like a wholesome, Midwestern human being. I don't drink at all—I drink large quantities of milk—so that kind of gets labeled."
Nonetheless, Florida Stage has twice cast him in an ethnic role. In 2004, he starred in their production of Joshua Ford's play Miklat as a secular American Jew who becomes ultra-Orthodox while studying for a semester in Israel. "Apparently, they enjoyed my Jewish sensibilities down there," says Sullivan, who has a Jewish stepfather, "because they brought me back to play a young man who becomes a rabbi." That was in Splitting Infinity, by Jamie Pachino, in 2006.
His female friends, meanwhile, are impressed by the type of man he's played in other shows. Between Almanzo in Little House and Anne of Green Gables' Gilbert, foe-turned-beau of the title character, he's embodied many a woman's adolescent crush. "All the female friends of mine are like, 'You're getting to be in all these shows as my favorite dream men,'" he reports.
Which brings up something else in Little House that is atypical for Sullivan, 29. "This is one of the first times I'm playing a full-grown guy," he says. "I wasn't sure how they were going to use me once I was cast. I could almost be a kid in the classroom," as some other young adults in the cast play. Instead: "They wanted me to grow a little bit of this [points to his beard], and I wear this amazing duster. I look like I'm going to have a holster with a couple of revolvers ready to go."
Little House will keep Sullivan employed through mid-June, and he's been working regularly since 2007, but the couple of years before that were slower going. "I had tough time finding work for a while. There's always the gaps," he says. "I've been fortunate enough to basically break even, partially helped by my first national commercial." In that commercial from a few years ago, Sullivan played a herpes sufferer advocating the use of Valtrex: Watch here for the guy in sweats who announces "I have genital herpes" and "It doesn't matter how few outbreaks you get." While he's grateful for the financial cushion commercial work provides, Sullivan states: "It kind of hurts your feelings that you can work for a day and make as much money as you have doing theater for the past several years. They flew me out to L.A. first-class...what? Fly me coach and I'll buy a TV with the extra money! You film it the next day, and the next day you fly home. And you get these huge checks for weeks. As an actor, it was just mind-boggling."
In contrast to Valtrex, on the highbrow end of Sullivan's résumé is a 2003 run in London's West End in Shakespeare's R&J, Joe Calarco's updating of Romeo and Juliet as a play-within-a-play performed at a boys' boarding school. Sullivan had played Juliet in Shakespeare's R&J during his junior year at Ithaca College when Calarco, an IC alum, brought it to Ithaca's Kitchen Theatre for tweaking after its acclaimed off-Broadway run. In London, Sullivan understudied the Juliet and Mercutio/Lady Capulet/Friar Laurence tracks, and went on in each part once a week at a matinee.
Sullivan was only about 13 when he first met Calarco, who was a teacher in the Next Generation summer acting camp run by Ithaca's Hangar Theatre. When Sullivan was a college freshman, Calarco cast him in a workshop production of his play In the Absence of Spring. Then, a year out of college and still fairly new to New York, Sullivan earned his Equity card in a Calarco-directed production of The Summer of the Swans, based on the Newbery Medal-winning children's novel and produced by Theatreworks USA at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Greenwich Village.
Another young actor in that show was John Lloyd Young, future Tony winner. They've been out of touch recently, but Sullivan remembers having lunch with Young a year or so after Swans and "he was telling me about how he had auditioned for this show called Jersey Boys and just missed getting it. A couple months later, the guy playing Frankie at La Jolla decides not to head to Broadway, John gets the call, and bam!"
Among Sullivan's other collaborations with Broadway stars was a workshop in college of a Romeo and Juliet musical co-directed by Terrence Mann, who also co-wrote the rock opera's score. "I am often oblivious to big musical theater names," Sullivan admits, "so I didn't know the relevance of Terrence Mann until after I had auditioned, which I think was beneficial."
In another Ithaca College workshop—and another (sort of) brush with a Broadway star—Sullivan originated a role in a new musical that would be played by Matt Cavenaugh when the show made it to New York. The show was Jonestown: The Musical, which was featured in the New York Fringe Festival in 2004—with Cavenaugh (now Tony in West Side Story) in the part Sullivan played when the show had been created at IC three years earlier. "I wish it had gone further" than the Fringe, Sullivan says of the musical about the 1978 mass suicide at Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana. "If people could get past how potentially offensive it is, they would have enjoyed it. The music was so smart and so funny, and really pretty catchy too."
As both a student and a professional actor, Sullivan has worked frequently at theaters in the Ithaca area. In 2007, he did All the Great Books at the Hangar. He also taught in Hangar's Next Generation camp a few years ago. During college, Sullivan played Demetrius in the Hangar's A Midsummer Night's Dream, performed in the musicals Bed and Sofa and The Pirates of Penzance at the Kitchen Theatre and costarred in Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth at the now-defunct Firehouse Theatre. Shortly after moving to NYC following his 2002 graduation, he returned to Ithaca to play the title role in an original play that the Hangar Theatre toured to local high schools. Sullivan describes Josh Keenan Comes Out to the World, written by Kenny Finkle, as "a one-hour play about coming out, for high school audiences, that didn't come across as ridiculous or pandering.
"We did this show at a bunch of schools, from 'enlightened' Ithaca to the more rural nearby towns," he continues, "and there was a pretty surprising constant: The parents were the ones who couldn't handle it. We thought we were gonna get hit with a lot of whoops and jeers, but the kids got it. We'd always have talkbacks, and they would have really insightful comments and would find us afterwards and say thanks for coming. But the parents wrote to newspapers, took issue with the content. Whenever you see that the next generation has, overall, a more open mind than the one before it, you know that progress is being made. It was really something to be a part of that show and to feel like we were helping to get the conversation started."
Last year, he was back on the school circuit—but this time playing theaters on college campuses with The Complete History of America (abridged). The show had to be updated while the tour was in progress, due to the presidential campaign. So a George W. Bush press conference ceded to an Obama/McCain debate, which became an Obama-only scene after the election (Sullivan played Obama).
Touring with Reduced Shakespeare, and now with Little House, has been the first extensive traveling Sullivan's done in his lifetime. Growing up, his family just traveled in the Northeast, except for ski trips to Park City, Utah. When he got out to Alaska in March '08 to do Great Books, "I loved it. It's just beautiful, probably the best place I've ever been," he says, "Everybody we saw there was like, 'Oh, it's too bad you're here during the thaw. It's really ugly.' We were like, 'Who are you kidding?' Anchorage is pretty, but Valdez is surrounded by these huge mountains—it's unbelievable."
The year before, he'd toured Ireland with the (abridged) troupe. "I grew up playing with Legos until I was 13, so castles were a big thing for me, and this was the first time seeing castles," he recalls. "Some of the places we saw were unreal. Rock of Cashel is up on this hill, lush green everywhere, amazing vaulted ceilings, you can see forever, there's sheep all over the country, and the weather was beautiful."
There was a problem in Ireland, though. "The audiences weren't great," Sullivan says. "These theaters all got government money for bringing shows in, but it [selling tickets] didn't matter to them. They did not advertise." The smaller crowds were especially challenging for a show that depends on audience reaction and participation to keep it rollicking. "You have to have a critical mass of audience members. Once you're below a threshold of people, there's no comfort: People are afraid to clap, afraid to laugh... Everywhere we performed in the U.S. is packed every night with raucous crowds. It's so much fun to perform for those guys."
He does not expect such indifference during the Little House on the Prairie tour, as it's concentrated in the South and Midwest. "It's really heartland," explains Sullivan. "They're taking the play to a lot of cities where there's a definite following, where people are intimately connected to the musical and there's a lot of anticipation." One of the final cities on the tour is Sioux Falls, South Dakota, just 50 or so miles from De Smet, where the show is set, a town that the real Ingallses helped settle.
Photos of Dustin, from top: out of his 19th-century costumes for a recent offstage shot; front and center in Little House on the Prairie, The Musical with Kate Loprest (left), Brian Muller (right) and others in the cast; in one of his more serious moments in All the Great Books (abridged); center, in Florida Stage's Miklat with, from left, Mike Burstyn, Ben Rauch and Demosthenes Chrysan; as Orlando in As You Like It, produced in 2005 by New York Classical Theatre in Central Park, with Jenn Schulte; left, in The Summer of the Swans with (from left) Bethany Butler, Greg Shamie, Angela Bullock and John Lloyd Young; in two more chapters of All the Great Books, as performed at St. Louis Rep. [Little House photo by Jerry Dalia]