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Show Brings Spirit Of The Season To Both Audience And Performers

Guy Stephens/WNIJ
The stage is set for the 21st production of J.R. Sullivan's "Hometown Holiday" at the Nordloff Center in downtown Rockford.

Rockford native and New American Theater founder J.R. Sullivan says he conceived of his Hometown Holiday Show as a celebration of the season, and of his hometown.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ
J.R. Sullivan

He brings the 21st production of his show, featuring Sullivan and a troupe of friends, back to Rockford this weekend, Dec. 10 and 11.

Sullivan says the format mirrors one of the holiday staples at NAT, the company he founded and led for many years.  He says the main show was an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” 

“But we also did this noon-hour thing called ‘Christmas Cards,’ which was a potpourri of short stories, comedy sketches, music, and changing it out every day for a week,” he says.

Sullivan says that, like the radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," each year’s Hometown Holiday is both familiar and fresh.

"There is a story-telling element, there is a comedy sketches element, there are musical guests, and a variety of them,” he says, "and they will do songs of the season, yes, but they’ll also do original stuff that they are composing, and a variety of other songs, sometimes musical theater, sometimes jazz standards. And there is a new story every year. So that, structure is the same, but everything within it is new."

Credit Guy Stephens/WNIJ
Marcella Rose Sciotto

Marcella Rose Sciotto joined the show several years ago. That makes her one of the newer members of the company.  She says the fact that many in the troupe had worked with Sullivan for decades wasn’t a problem. She says it felt like coming into a family.  In a way, it still does.

“I was accepted immediately when I came in," she says. "I was overwhelmed. The favorite thing I do every year is come here, because it just starts off my holiday season. In anticipation of coming, and in performing and in leaving, I just have this Christmas spirit all the way to my bones.”

The first Hometown Holidays were staged in Rockford’s Veterans Memorial Hall.  In recent years they moved down Main Street to what used to be the home of Sullivan’s old theater company.  The company folded years ago, and the site is now called the Nordlof Center, after the local benefactor who bought the vacant building and later gave it to the Rockford Public Library.

More recently, the space where so many of Sullivan’s productions were staged was christened the J.R. Sullivan Theater.  So how does it feel to putting on a show there?

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

“To see your name on something while you’re still, you know, walking the earth, that’s (laughs) surreal," he says. "I believe I’m still walking the earth, but I dance when I come here. It’s so fulfilling for me and joyous."

Sullivan says that, every year, he thinks, "this is probably it." But, after 21 years, Hometown Holiday seems to be going strong, and Sullivan adds that he, his performers and those who come to see it always end up looking forward to doing it again the next year.

So what’s the secret of its success? Sullivan says the bond of trust and support between the performers helps but, really, it’s the trust from the audience.

“They’re like the net, you know, that you can fling yourself upon, and they hold you up," he says. "And they’re here with a will for this to succeed, to be good, to elevate, to entertain, to engage, to connect, and that’s the secret.”

J.R. Sullivan’s Hometown Holiday will be presented twice on Saturday, at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., with a final show Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m..

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."
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