From books to (hopefully) Broadway

University students put their talents into community theater, most recently with 'Follies' at the Bloomington Civic Theatre

Katrina Wilber

Don’t be surprised if they sing snippets of songs in lectures and practice bits of choreography on the bridge.

It’s simply because they spend their days on campus and their nights on a stage in Bloomington preparing for opening night.

University students Brian Kess, Robbie McNamee and Reid Harmsen are cast members of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies,” presented by Bloomington Civic Theatre. For the three, pulling double-duty between classes and rehearsals is nothing new.

“Follies” tells of generations of Weisman Follies performers who gather at their old theater the night before it’s to be turned into a parking lot. Two couples are forced to face their past through songs that include ex-showgirls and shadows of the couples when they were younger.

This is McNamee’s third show with Bloomington Civic Theatre, having performed in “Damn Yankees” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” The theater and French double-major is double-cast in “Follies” as a specialty dancer and Kevin, a character who pursues an older woman.

“I was in the ensemble for my first two shows,” McNamee said. “But being in the ensemble is still very demanding since there’s a lot of dancing and hard physical work.”

McNamee wants to continue with theater after college, but he also plans on getting a full-time job because “theater isn’t going to pay my bills.”

He got involved with Bloomington Civic Theatre in a roundabout way.

“Brian (Kess) had done a few shows there and got me interested,” he said. “And I had heard good things about Bloomington Civic’s productions, like ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and knew it was something I’d be interested in.”

Kess, a second-year theater student, portrays young Ben in flashbacks to the memories of the four main characters. This is his sixth role at Bloomington Civic Theatre, and it’s his biggest role yet.

“I was usually a chorus boy or had a minor role before with Bloomington Civic, so this is the first role I can really sink my teeth into,” he said.

For Kess, the hardest part of the show is trying to build his character.

“It’s a strange role since there’s not a lot of text,” he said. “So I’m building by watching my older counterpart, analyzing him and such, to figure out who he is.”

While choreography, blocking and creating a character seem difficult enough, Kess and McNamee agreed it’s hard to juggle school and rehearsal and manage to stay healthy.

“I don’t sleep a lot,” Kess admitted. “There’s a little time to do homework and then maybe take a quick nap before rehearsal.”

McNamee’s toughest job is “finding time for me, finding time to regain the energy I’m expending. There are definitely sacrifices to be made.”