The first performance by the Lawrence Summer Youth Theatre didn’t go exactly as planned.
That inaugural production in 1973 was the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” It was supposed to be performed outdoors, but the weather didn’t cooperate.
“We practiced all that time to do the production at the bandstand in South Park,” said Susan Sublett Newton, who was in the chorus and a dancer in the show. “We were all ready to do it — and I think we only had one performance day at that time, as far as I remember — and we couldn’t do it. So we had to completely switch and do it at the Community [Building].”
As the saying goes, the show must go on. And for 50 years, the Summer Youth Theatre (SYT) has gone on, rain or shine. In spite of all sorts of other barriers, it’s brought energetic theatre performances to the community and given thousands of young performers their first chances onstage.
Past and present members of SYT will join together in Lawrence on Friday for a celebration of the program’s 50th anniversary, featuring a reunion party and a cabaret show that stars dozens of SYT alumni.
Sublett Newton, who grew up in Lawrence, spent around five summers training and performing with SYT and says she made lifelong friends as a result. While rehearsing for the upcoming reunion cabaret, she says, she flashed back in time to her junior high and high school years in the program.
“I have had more fun practicing and singing and dancing and just performing my heart out, which I haven’t done in a while,” Sublett Newton said. “And it’s really brought everything back, and I’ve just loved it. I didn’t expect to have so much fun. It’s amazing that [SYT] lasted for 50 years. It’s high-quality training, wonderful for students and kids … I just think it’s outstanding, so I’m really pleased that it’s lasted this long.”
SYT staff pride themselves on providing high-quality training to young thespians, who are able to learn directly from professional directors, costume designers, stage designers, stage managers, choreographers, actors and dancers in the industry.
Over the past 50 years, SYT casts and crews have put on dozens of productions of such well-known shows as “The Music Man,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Camelot,” “Hairspray,” “Wizard of Oz,” “West Side Story” and much more. They’ve also done a number of original scripts written by Lawrence’s own dramatic community. On the schedule for this summer: “Cinderella, or How Pipsqueak the Mouse Became a Stallion,” written by Lawrence’s Will Averill — the son of SYT mainstay Ric Averill.
“It’s pretty incredible that, number one, a youth theatre could remain still going and still vibrant and still so popular and so meaningful to so many people over the years,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, director of performing arts at the Arts Center. “The other incredible thing about the event is we have three people coming that were in the very first season of SYT, and then we’ve got a spattering of people from all generations.”
To make the anniversary even more special, SYT will be unveiling an award, “The Averill,” in honor of the Averill family, which includes Ric and Jeanne Averill and their adult children, Will and daughter Trish Averill Neuteboom.
The Averill award will be presented at Friday’s celebration to artist and puppeteer Spencer Lott, who is a former SYT member and has been featured on the PBS children’s show “Sesame Street.” Lott plans to do a performance Friday night in which his puppet will accept the award, Sullivan said.
Each member of the Averill family has contributed to theatre and performing arts in Lawrence. Ric, a longtime local director, performer and playwright who is the artistic director of performing arts emeritus at the Arts Center, joined the SYT staff along with Jeanne during its third year of operation and have been with it, in one capacity or another, ever since.
“Ric and his family have been an enormous part of SYT and the Arts Center,” Sullivan said. “We plan to give [The Averill] award every single year as kind of a legacy piece to the Arts Center, to SYT, to the Averill family, and to the important work that has come out of SYT over the years.”
Summer Youth Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebration
Friday’s SYT anniversary celebration — following a reunion party — will feature a cabaret show directed by Ric with performances by about 50 alumni from several decades of SYT. Several current SYT kids also will participate, Sullivan said. Along with numbers from past productions, the cast will perform “Seasons of Love” from the Broadway musical “Rent” to pay homage to SYT alumni who have died over the years.
Mary Baker is the cabaret’s music director and pianist, Laurie VanderPol is the assistant director, and Justin Harbaugh is the choreographer.
SYT’s 50th Anniversary Alumni Reunion & Cabaret, which also is a fundraiser for the future of SYT, is scheduled for 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Friday, May 26 at Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St.
The lobby doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for the reunion party with food and drinks, which will last until 8 p.m. Simultaneously, there will be a room where attendees can watch video footage from old SYT shows as well as see nostalgic posters and photos. The cabaret show will follow those festivities, from 8 to 9:30 p.m.
Tickets to attend the in-person event cost $100 for VIP table seating, $50 for adult and senior general admission, and $20 for students and youth general admission. In-person tickets can be purchased online up until one hour before the show’s start time. Tickets to view the livestream of the event cost $15 and can be purchased up until the show’s start time.
Appetizers from Merchants Pub & Plate and a photo booth provided by Say Cheez Lawrence are included as part of the in-person ticket cost. Attendees also can enter a raffle and purchase SYT merchandise.
Visit the Art Center’s website to learn more about the event, including a list of the alumni performing in the cabaret. Additional questions can be directed to the Arts Center by phone call at 785-843-2787 or via email at email@example.com.