Audience reactions inspire performer

by Joyce A. Mitchell

OLATHE — As an actor, Curt Crespino finds nothing so rewarding as leaving an audience visibly moved by his performance — and that’s exactly what he saw in the recently concluded production of “Sanders Family Christmas.”

The production, which had a five-week, sold-out run in the intimate Chestnut Fine Arts Center in Olathe, had viewers in tears as the mother sang to her war-bound son. Crespino imagined that it touched an emotional chord across the generations, as members of the audience were reminded of their own family members leaving for the battlefield, whether it be for World War II, the Korean conflict or the war in Iraq, he said.

Crespino portrayed the son, Dennis, who enlisted in the Marines during World War II. He and his family performed at a final Christmas Eve service at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. Much of the mother’s dialogue was scriptural, relating how the Bible applies to all parts of life.

Because the actors never left the stage, Crespino had lots of time to observe the audience response. People sang and tapped along to the hymns, he said, and when the Rev. Oglethorpe called out, “Can I get an amen?” or “Bow your heads and pray,” it was not just the actors who responded. As a Catholic, the traditional Baptist songs were not familiar to him, but audience members who knew the tunes joined in.

Though it’s a repeat performance for Crespino, who appeared in the show several years ago, he was still taken aback by the response.

“The audience reaction, and participation, and receptiveness were so infectious,” he said. “You felt you’ve just done something wonderful.”

Even less obviously responsive audiences, he said, seemed genuinely touched by the central message — that all great things come from above.

Divinely inspired productions are nothing new for Crespino however. He also appeared in the center’s preceding show, playing Noah’s questioning youngest son in “Two by Two,” a biblical comedy.

Crespino’s stage roots date to his days in Catholic high school in Pittsburg, where he was in drama, debate and forensics, he said.

“Having grown up in a small community, I had no idea that so many [theater] opportunities would exist as they do in Kansas City,” said Crespino, who attends Church of the Nativity in Leawood.

Although his participation in the metro area theater scene dates back to 1993, Crespino is not quite ready to quit his day job, where he goes by the title of vice chancellor of the University of Missouri in Kansas City. His work in- cludes raising funds and planning special events for alumni and constituents.

Crespino has been a familiar face at Chestnut since a 1996 production of “Forever Plaid,” a role he will reprise in five shows that will run from Dec. 28-31. He is also one of the theater’s Dickens Carolers. In 2008, he will appear in the Chestnut’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and in a musical tribute to Tony Bennett.

Although he, like most actors, has performed in dramas, Crespino freely admits that singing is his passion.

“To tell a story with both acting and vocally is more satisfying,” he said.

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