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.