Theater becomes family tradition

Generations of actors keep coming back to Glendale's Stepping Stone Players. One of them is veteran actor and director Allan Hunt, who first performed with the group in the role of Harold Hill in “The Music Man” in 2005, directed “Oliver!” in 2007, played the title role in “The Wizard of Oz” in 2009 and was Grandpa Joe in “Willy Wonka.” Now he's back again as director of “The Music Man,” which opened this week at Hayhurst Hall on the Hoover High School campus.

“It's really great introducing children to the theater,” said Hunt of working with the nonprofit theater group, which mingles children onstage with adults and professionals. “It's really well worth it. They have great energy, and are so willing to learn.”

Steven Yaussi was a teenager when he played the Scarecrow in the Stepping Stone Players' very first production, “The Wizard of Oz,” in 2000. Now an audio and lighting designer based in Chicago, he's returned to do the lighting for “The Music Man,” which is co-produced by his father, Craig Yaussi, the theater group's board president. “I've come full circle,” Steven Yaussi said.

It's not an unusual phenomenon for the group. Many children who learned the craft of acting and stage production with the theater group later eventually became professionals in the industry and have returned as adults to mentor future generations of actors, directors, musicians, stage technicians and choreographers, said Belinda Howell, a founding member of the Stepping Stone Players and a co-producer of “The Music Man.”

The theater group came into existence when parents, appalled that their children were lip-syncing to Britney Spears songs as a form of “theater production” in local schools, got together and founded the Stepping Stone Players to offer real theater experience to local children. Now in its 12th year, the program continues to offer yearly onstage and offstage theater experience to local children and adults, and the opportunity to work alongside professionals in the industry.

“There wasn't any theater,” said Howell, who holds advanced degrees from CalArts, Mount Holyoke College and California State University, Long Beach. “We started out with children, and now adults are involved and we have professional actors, musicians and directors mentoring the kids. It's kind of blossomed.”

When the group's lighting technician recently had to bow out of the current production, Steven Yaussi decided to use his summer vacation time to fly out from Chicago to design and program the lighting for the musical. “They definitely filled a void for me,” said Steven Yaussi, who remembers no other substantial arts programs in local schools when he was a young student.

The story of “The Music Man” takes place in 1912 and centers on con man Harold Hill, who charms the townspeople of River City, Iowa, into buying instruments and uniforms with the supposed goal of organizing a boys' band. However, Hill knows nothing of music, much less how to teach it, and plans to skip town with the town's money. However, his plot is foiled when he falls for Marian the librarian, who sees through his scheme.

“It's charming. It's a real time capsule,” Hunt said of returning to direct the show. “It's an old friend, as an actor and director. Even though it opened in 1957, you don't need to update it. It takes place during a time in history so wonderfully captured that you don't want to change it.”

Hunt has worked as an actor since childhood, appearing in shows from “Dennis the Menace,” “Leave it to Beaver” and “All My Sons” to the 1960s TV series for which he became most known, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” in the role of Stu Riley. His more recent TV credits include “Charmed” and “The Love Boat: Next Generation.” In addition to stage directing, he teaches drama and heads the Visual and Performing Arts program at Oak Park High School.

In “The Music Man,” playwright and composer Meredith Willson included many unique idioms and sayings from the turn of the century in the script, which won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Legendary songs such as “76 Trombones” and “'Till There Was You,” are featured in the musical. The cast album also garnered a Grammy Award for Best Original Cast Album.

For the Stepping Stone Players, Howell and Craig Yaussi hope to expand the theater group and produce more shows each year. The challenge, as with many community theater groups, is funding.

The two producers wear many hats. In addition to the hiring staff and interfacing with production and cast, Howell writes grant proposals and Craig Yaussi deals with the advertising and seeks funding. Beside his co-producing role, Craig Yaussi, who minored in drama, also jumps onstage. In the current production, you can find him in the second number, opening scene, as the train conductor.

The overall experience, Craig Yaussi said, is “good and exhausting.”

LAURA TATE is a frequent contributor to Marquee.


“The Music Man,” presented by the Stepping Stone Players.

When: Through Aug. 26.

Where: Hayhurst Hall, Hoover High School campus, 651 Glenwood Road, Glendale.

Tickets: $15 to $18.

Info: (818) 243-7700 ext. 216;

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