May 16, 2017

This month Belleville West’s Little Theatre hit an impressive milestone in the 70-year history of its accomplished program.

Little Shop of Horrors, which was presented May 4-6 in the school’s Performing Arts Center, marked the 50th edition of the production group’s annual spring musical.

“The spring musical is an important part of the school culture in that it is the last theater production of the school year,” Belleville West Principal Rich Mertens noted. Every year it represents one of the last major school events before students are released for the summer months – or in the case of seniors, they graduate and say goodbye to their school. “For fifty years, the musical has brought great joy and entertainment to thousands of people. Throughout the years our students have impressed theater goers over and over again. The students take great pride in being part of this long standing Belleville West tradition.”

Tracing its origins to the Belleville Township High School Thespian Troupe, which was founded in 1935, the Little Theatre was organized in the fall of 1947 by Merle Guthrie, Jim Pleasant, Katherine Davis, Margaret Hallock, and Madge Ream. It originally had about 60 members, but that figure has nearly tripled over the years to more than 150. Upon its founding, the Little Theatre organizers planned to present one play and one operetta each year. But by 1948 they added a senior play and freshman one-act plays. The Junior Jam was added in 1949. During the theatre company’s 20th anniversary year, 1967, the tradition of staging a musical in the spring of each year was begun with a production of Bye Bye Birdie.

Nick Johnson, the faculty member who this year directed Little Shop of Horrors — his first time in the director’s chair after a decade serving as choreographer — is very familiar with the history of the Little Theatre and the importance of the spring musical. He played the male lead in the production of Pippin when he was a junior in 1995 and had a prominent role in South Pacific as a senior in 1996.

In Pippin, Johnson worked under longtime Little Theatre director Dr. Richard Hunsaker who launched the idea for putting on the musical three decades before. That show was Hunsaker’s last and he retired as a high school teacher a few weeks after the production closed. Another veteran of the Little Theatre groups faculty sponsors, Janet Kuehn, took over in 1996 and directed South Pacific.

“I think everyone’s style is a little bit different when it comes to directing,” Johnson said. “But I can say for certain that one thing I adopted from Dr. Hunsaker was discipline. He worked very hard to impress upon the students that we’re all important parts of the same team, so we all have to be here for every practice and every rehearsal because you don’t want to let anybody down.”

Johnson said he believes Hunsaker, who was in attendance at the 50th musical, is proud that the students and the faculty are still committed to putting on a top-notch show five decades later.

At the half-century mark, the spring musical promises to be a fixture for years to come with a committed staff that includes Johnson, music director Michael Pond-Jones, choreographer Kay Guebert and technical director John Lodle.

“I’d like to think that we live up to the high standards,” Johnson said. “We try to put on a professional-quality show every year and it’s really a labor of love for our talented group of seniors and faculty members who make it happen.

The list of musicals performed by the Little Theatre is filled with Broadway favorites that include: Annie, Hello Dolly, Pajama Game, 1776, The Music Man, Little Mary Sunshine, The King and I, Oklahoma, Li’l Abner, My Fair Lady, Godspell, Annie Get Your Gun, Pippin, Guys and Dolls, Fiddler on the Roof, Damn Yankees and South Pacific.